I raced home to watch my latest Amazon purchase, this "Peter Grimes" from Zurich and am still reeling from the experience.
There were elements of Robert Israel's stage design I wasn't immediately keen on, David Pountney has thought long and hard about how he wanted to present this great 20th Century opera, and the cast - from top-to-bottom - seem 100% convinced by his ideas resulting in an emotionally shattering experience. This is, of course, aided greatly by Welser-Most and the Zurich Opera House Orchestra's tremendous reading.
I've grown wary of stagings where nearly everyone is on the stage nearly all the time, and I'm afraid that element of this production put me on guard at curtain's rise. The stage is filled with chairs, used throughout the evening, many of them suspended in air with choristers representing the citizens of the Burrough, and all evening we watch them drink, weave, mend nets, work on model ships, etc. While some find this sort of thing adds an element of theatricality - everyone observing whats going on, the superiority and judgment of the villagers over the protagonist, how alone we can be despite the presence of many, etc., it bugs me just a little bit, particularly in intimate moments where their presence feels intrusive and unnecessary, and did so here as well. It felt a little "bang you over the head" obvious.
Now that the negative is out of the way, every other aspect of this production is quite magnificent, and I actually liked the urreal/abstract multi-leveled set with its ladders, poles, columns, wall of marine paraphenalia, etc, which gave the entire thing a sense of "nightmare of the soul." In Peter's mad scene, the violent waves of the ocean projected at the rear of the stage, is a nice touch as Peter's "boat" (a multiuse platform that rises and falls according to staging needs) rocks as he calls "steady." There are many such touches throughout.
Ventris may just have found a special niche that could make him the Grimes of choice these days. With a burly physical presence not unlike Vickers, his voice - at least here - has that English lyricism recalling Pears. This physical/vocal juxtaposition makes for a powerful, multi-faceted production, with Peter's longing for peace and tenderness at enormous odds with his brutality and quick temper. I always route for Peter, and rarely more so than with Mr. Ventris's performance. The denizens of the Burrough are almost an entirely unsavory lot and Peter's madness and intollerance seem to be a perfectly logical result of having lived among these horrible, horrible people. My God, anyone would snap.
That mob mentality, of course, extends to excluding Ellen, Balstrode and young John, from joining in their reindeer games.
Emily Magee brings a gentle intensity to Ellen making clear - unlike other productions - they share something strong here and that she loves this man. When she begins to doubt the plans she and Peter have laid out for themselves, it is a moment that absolutely shatters - her, Peter, and the audience.
The quartet with Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces is particularly touching here, and Mrs. Sedley's "Murder" song is delivered with a comic malice that is genuinely creepy.
One of the most devastating and powerful sequences in all of opera is the great chorus "Him who despises us we'll destroy" all the way through the end of the opera. There is no denying the thrill of the villagers mobbing and threatening the unseen Grimes, but when that "jolly" demented wordless chorus takes over, I lose it every time, my entire body shuddering and tense until the final blackout. And so it was here. Welser-Most's leading of the Zurich forces is thrilling, visceral stuff, and I enjoyed the occasional overhead shots of the orchestra pouring everything and wailing away on Britten's greatest score.
The supporting cast, Alfred Muff a stalwart Balstrode, Cornelia Kallisch a hateful, brilliant Mrs. Sedley, and Liliana Nikiteanu playing Auntie up as a red hot hottie, as well as the rest of the cast in roles small and large, all are at fever pitch level and contribute enormously to the success of this wrenching production.
The audience begins cheering as soon as the lights go out, and cheers cast, maestro and orchestra (which really is a "cast" member in this opera), but I just motionless on the couch for a few minutes, wrecked.