The Ultimate Outsider - Peter Grimes: '69 Film with Peter Pears
In listening to a good deal of Britten yesterday, I decided today to watch the 1969 film of Peter Grimes after a friend sent a link to a clip from the final scene. Decided isn’t quite the right word - there was no choice, really. It has been a while since I’ve watched this particular performance - and I’m at a complete loss as to why this is. As I hit play, I immediately recalled Natalie Dessay’s introduction to the opera during the Met’s HD cinecast several seasons ago, as with those wide eyes she lugubriously invited us in to experience “the sad, horrible story of Peter Grimes.” And so it began.
I have always intrigued by the physical production of this “Grimes” filmed in the converted barn at Britten’s Snape Maltings home. David Myerscough- Jones’ brilliant, realistic sets were trucked in from London and assembled onto a makeshift soundstage. The tight fitting - overly cramped stage works ; the planks, catwalks and breakwater with its jagged wooden pilings - the sea roaring and crashing on a rear projection screen - all work miracles in creating the believably stifling world of the borough.
Being one of the most prolific and successful composers of the 20th century, we (or I) often forget what a truly amazing conductor Britten was and in this 25 year old score it’s safe to say, no one knew - or ever shall know - how better to put across this amazing music better than its creator. Every nuance, every secret thing is mined here in this reading that makes the score almost a living organism, something propelled by its own volition - inexorably to a conclusion that could be imagined in no other way. From the opening notes, Britten’s invisible hand guides us over the next several hours which, fly by as if in dream time.
Peter Pears at 59 was not the same singer he was at 33/34 when he created the role, neither physically nor vocally. But, like his partner, having lived with this music inside of him for a quarter century, he brings something unique to it, and is able to infuse it with the type of wildness Vickers brought, yet also a vulnerable tenderness (not part of Vicker’s Grimes) as was recently shown to us in the performance of Anthony Dean Griffey.
Heather Harper is Ellen Orford down to her laces. Theatrically, Harper invests the role with a truly intriguing mix of young woman and old soul while vocally she soars through Ellen’s music with a limpid beauty as though it Mozart or Puccini, convincing me Britten is truly their equal in matters operatic.
Bryon Drake offers a stolid Balstrode with the right amount of gruffness and sensitivity, loyal to Peter, while aware of where this story must go.
Amidst all this bleakery, it was great fun to discover a voluptuous Elizabeth Bainbridge strutting her stuff as a most intriguing Auntie, the one outsider who knows her way in. She is simply terrific here.
Aside from the magnificence of the score, the acting here is about as good as it ever gets in opera, and this must be attributed not only to a fine, handpicked cast, but to the direction of Joan Cross - the original Ellen Orford. This level of the acting extends to every smaller role as well as every single member of the chorus - all creating a believable mob, yet who sing with a sweet earnestness in their church scene. The hunting down of Grimes is here, perhaps the most chilling I can recall and Brian Large’s camera work magnifies this to terrifying proportions. The
chemistry throughout the cast presents the best of all possible worlds from cinema and opera, offering 100 percent believability and a naturalness of movement.
The number of moments both visually and musically causing me to gasp, shrink into the back of my couch in terror, or just let the tears flow were countless. Ellen’s reappearance after the storm, holding John, as the door to the tavern bursts open; Peter’s striking Ellen (in what appears to be a punch in the face) and more.
Wonderful, too, seeing Jill Gomez, Anne Pashley and Robert Tear in supporting roles early in their careers.
The penultimate scene of Peter Grimes is as absorbing, as profoundly moving as anything that exists in the operatic canon. How Britten achieved this employing such economically musical means is nearly incomprehensible and yet works as if by magic, standing both as great music and great theatre. An a cappella mad scene, punctuated only by a offstage cries of “Grimes” and a few distant fog horns, there is for me, no more hopeless nor bleaker picture in all of opera than this. Even just shy of 60, Pears tears into this scene like a man possessed, pouring every last ounce he has into it. His cries of “Come home! Come home!” terrifying . . . his utterance “Turn the skies back and begin again,” cutting straight to the heart. It is, I believe, impossible not to have one's heart broken by this man, as this character, in this moment.
This is filmed opera at its very best. If there is anyone at all unfamiliar with this performance, I strongly urge you to remedy that situation immediately if not sooner!