All classical music and opera fans are used to showing up to concert halls and opera houses all year round to enjoy their favourite art form. Once in a while an unusual venue comes along to spice things up, whether it’s Daniel Barenboim at Tate Modern or Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in a factory in Birmingham the match of programme and overall concept to the space take precedent. In order to be meaningful it has to facilitate an experience not replicable in a standard venue.
Using the beach at Aldeburgh to present Peter Grimes was a risky as it was a natural fit. Britten was convinced that his music came from Suffolk, famously in his Aspen Award Speech in 1964 he uttered:
‘I belong at home-there-in Aldeburgh. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships. I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives’ (to use Berenson’s phrase).’
Performing Grimes 20 minutes walk from Britten’s home and his grave surely has symbolism on its side. And few scores have such a sea filled sound world than this. The orchestra was crisply conducted by Steuart Bedford, pre-recorded a week earlier during two indoor concerts and relayed beautifully through speakers built into the set and also on scaffold towers all around. The conductor was in a specially buried box conducting the vocal performances. It surely wasn’t as immediate as having the players there live but the magical experience of having the magnificent interludes played while gazing at the very seascape that inspired them, with the wind harshly blowing, was unforgettable. Leslie Travers’ set was a horizontal structure that had turned its back to the sea, resembling a crumbling provincial quayside with boats being used to divide the space. A couple of raised platforms standing in for interiors. It was as simple as it was effective and evocative.
The singing was amplified and despite the, at times fierce, wind everyone was audible and we surely appreciated the extra effort put into performing in such inhospitable conditions. Incredibly this was Alan Oke’s first assumption of the title part. His beautifully lyrical delivery had all the beauty of Peter Pears and when needed he could command a much darker chest voice to communicate his sense of isolation and otherness. Lots of people like a heldentenor singing the part…virtually overplaying the character and barking their way to edge of civilization. Oke kept his interpretation in line with Britten’s ethereal writing and rode the bigger melodies with great flexibility and sense of ownership.
The rest of the cast offered some characterful singing, particularly Giselle Allen and David Kempster were the perfect companions for Oke. Allen was beautifully expressive and her acting was strong enough to read clearly from a large distance. Kempster’s Captain Balstrode was robustly voiced and with a great deal of humanity. He was the first person to walk on stage before a surprising coupe de theatre took place. A Spitfire flew exactly across the beach twice and then got lost in the depths of the sea horizon before the rumble of the woodwind paced through and replaced the engine noise. Now that was definitely a start to proceedings that cannot be replicated in any other venue.
Tim Albery definitely used the location and the seaside setting as a great asset. One interesting aural aspect was that members of the large chorus were partially amplified, allowing for an interesting variation in the sound for all of us sitting on the shingle at the front of the stage. And they definitely took their task seriously, being the nearest to an ancient Greek chorus that I have ever seen in an opera. A total treat.
Due credit has to be given to the wonderful ushers that were unfailingly charming and smiley despite dealing with some very insistent grumpy old folks that were trying to use beach chairs that were expressly not allowed. An evening that none of us will easily forget. A night that justified the hype and all our expectations, despite the fact we all were covered in five layers of clothing and winter blankets we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. The great British summer found its soundtrack.
A few tweets from the evening
Curtain Call Video
Slideshow of shots on Flickr
Storify by Aldeburgh Music Festival