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18 October, 2009

Peter Grimes at Sydney Opera House.

Peter Grimes: Britten. Sydney Opera House 2009 Thursday 15th October 2009

Dear Colleagues,

This was an extraordinary night at the opera, honour being had by all. Even the fussiest Britten fan should not be disappointed by the overall effect of this production. It was set in a classic 20th century British community hall, complete with angled windows, swinging double doors, wall clock, hanging fluorescent lights and curtained stage with central steps for prize recipients. Only the portrait of ‘her maj’ was missing.

Maestro Mark Wigglesworth was the hero of the evening as he conducted an experienced and well placed orchestra with flair and knowing enthusiasm. Full-throated Australian international tenor Stuart Skelton played the title role with sufficient ambiguity to be sympathetic, despite the obvious negatives. He sang Grimes to the cleaners with extended, exciting high and mighty vocalising. He also managed to often appear shy and insipid dramatically to augment the uncertainty about his motives and circumstances.

Ms Susan Gritton played a fine Ellen Orford with an incising and substantial soprano voice. I note that she has recorded with Pamela Helen Stephens under Richard Hickox. While her portrayal was marvellous it is hard to imagine that there is no Australian soprano available, despite the challenges of this role.

Peter Coleman-Wright was an effective (retired) Captain Balstrode. The two chirpy nieces were played well by Lorina Gore and Taryn Fiebig. Kanen Breen was appropriately cast as the clergyman.

Along with the solo village characters (David Corcoran, Richard Anderson, Elizabeth Campbell, Andrew Moran, Peter Carroll and Catherine Carby) the chorus was excellent. They acted separately and then in concert, unity and purpose when required.

The opera is meant to take place in numerous locations from the seashore to boat house to village court house. With ubiquitous modern economies we see almost the entire opera take place in the village hall. Ropes, tackle and nets are carted through the hall as if it were the marine seaside. A boat is even dragged through the building which is beyond bizarre. Lightning occurs inside and a storm is quite cleverly mimicked within. Such is modern opera. At one point the rear proscenium is pushed forward to become the fisherman’s cliff-top hang-out for the death scene.

As in the excellent old John Copley production in 2001 we were presented with apprentices who were very young pre-pubertal boys rather than the mid-teenagers one might glean from Crabbe’s source poem - and its libretto by Montagu Slater. I find Slater’s constant scrambling of English grammar to be tiresome, despite its initial cleverness. Peter Grimes is a 20th century masterpiece but it is clearly not everybody’s cup of tea as the theatre was far from full, even with large numbers of free tickets given away. This may be one of the company’s best efforts this year. The audience literally screamed at the end with cheers for all those involved.

For those who enjoy Benjamin Britten (I exclude myself) this opera is a ‘must-see’ … and there are only 5 more performances (one being on Saturday night, after only one day’s break!).

It seems unbalanced and unfair that most operas billed to be conducted by the musical director in recent years had internationally acclaimed casts singing with the best of Australia’s resident opera singers. Peter Grimes has five artists who have reputations at a high international level (Wigglesworth, Armfield, Skelton, Gritton, Coleman-Wright). At the same time most of our other operas this year have had only one or two who might fit this category - some had none. While less notable productions of La Boheme and Cosi fan tutte were televised by the ABC, the operas with world-class casts and productions were passed over for mere audio recordings with an English record company, denying posterity the sight of such unique performances from down-under.

It is sad to see such a poor quality televised production of Cosi fan tutte recently on the ABC. While it was not as bad as last year’s La Boheme, there is still a major contrast with previous video efforts of this company as well as with modern high definition broadcasts from New York and elsewhere. There were no sub-titles. The commentary was excruciating. Jennifer Byrne’s cues (no relation) were visible written on the palm of her hand! While there was some fine singing, the production and camera work did not compliment it. I have just watched the second half of Les Huguenots from 1990 and it is superior in every way.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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