For those who do not already know, this year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Britten lived for most of his life near Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, where, in 1948, he started a music festival which is still very much running, indeed world famous, today. Although he wrote music for many disciplines, his operas and choral works, many based on well known literary works (Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn of the Screw, The War Requiem) are probably his best known and best loved works – none more so than Peter Grimes inspired by George Crabbe’s poem about a a fisherman, in Aldeburgh, three of whose apprentices die in mysterious circumstances.
Britten’s music is extraordinarily atmospheric. In Peter Grimes the North Sea pounding on the Suffolk coast forms the backdrop to the oppressive and scary tale as the townsfolk gradually turn against Peter Grimes and finally drive him out to sea to a watery death rather than face retribution for the deaths of his apprentices. So, in one way it seems a no-brainer to stage the opera on the actual beach where the action took place. But staging a full blown opera on a beach?….. Especially a North Sea beach where the wind howls and all too often the rain pours down. So inspired, but also incredibly brave of the Aldeburgh Festival to celebrate Britten’s hundredth anniversay by doing just that – staging a performance of Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh.
And, amazingly – it worked! For starters, it didn’t rain! Yes, the wind howled, whipping the towns folks’ washing nearly off the lines as they hung it up in Act 1, and the audience shivered in their parkas and scarves and blankets on the temporary seating rigged on the beach – but only in sympathy with Peter Grimes and the real life cast battling through the nor’easter up there on the wonderful wooden boat and jetty stage – as seen here in the BBC’s image of the dress rehearsal.
And as the sun sank, the darkness that wrapped the stage merely reflected the growing darkness of the tale and of the music. No, before you ask, it was not a live orchestra – the orchestral score had been recorded a week earlier as orchestral instruments seriously do not like sand and sea water and would probably have gone on strike – but the singing was totally live. Discreetly mic’ed in the case of the soloists but just singing out in the case of the chorus of townsfolk who play such a vital role in the tale – all even more discreetly conducted by Steuart Bedford hidden in a small wooden shelter at the front of the stage.
The critics, like the audiences, were universally, bowled over. See here for Andrew Clements in the Guardian, or here for Michael Church in the Independent or here for Hugo Shirley in the Daily Telegraph. And so they should be. Not just by the individual and chorus performances but by the Leslie Travers’ wonderful set, Lucy Carter’s evocative lighting and Tim Albery’s perfectly pitched direction.
There was another performance last night and one more on Friday, weather permitting – but I cannot believe that they will not revive it next year. If they do, and if you can, go! To quote Michael Church:
Opera-house productions of Peter Grimes will come and go, but for me – and probably for everyone else at this extraordinary spectacle – none will hold a candle to what we witnessed under a black sky, in a biting wind, by the water’s edge.
I absolutely agree….