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At his exercise

Glyndebourne Festival
06/24/2000 -  and 28, June, 1, 7, 11, 14, 19, 27 July, 1 August 2000
Benjamin Britten Peter Grimes
Anthony Dean Griffey (Peter Grimes), James Jeffreys (Boy), Vivan Tierney (Ellen Orford), Steven Page (Captain Balstrode), Susan Gorton (Auntie), Camilla Tilling (First Niece), Linda Tuvas (Second Niece), John Graham-Hall (Bob Boles), Stafford Dean (Swallow), Hillary Summers (Mrs Sedley), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Rev Horace Adams), Christopher Maltman (Ned Keene), Michael Druiett (Hobson), Michael Haughey (Dr Crabbe)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus
Mark Wrigglesworth (conductor), Trevor Nunn (director), Stephen Rayne (revival director)

Wise parents offer their smaller offspring spinach and other high-minded food as a treat. The children quickly come to enjoy spinach greatly. Somewhat similarly, some of the audience at the Glyndebourne Festival hear the artiest and most tragic operas as part of a corporate boondongle. Glyndebourne certainly seems a strange venue for Peter Grimes, an attack on an English mean-mindedness that is nowhere to be seen in the expensive, comfortable and civilized theatre and gardens, and set in an impoverished and dreary town on the Suffolk coast, complete unlike nearby Lewes in landscape or temper. And the audience clearly loves it.

Trevor Nunn's 1992 production, revived by Stephen Rayne, goes some way to making Grimes easier to take by presenting it as a dark operetta with expressionist high-points, perhaps domesticating the mental cruelty of England in the second world war as James Whale's Frankenstein does the physical horror of the trenches. The sets are all picture-book cute, and the massed denizens of the borough are strongly characterized, like cartoon characters. Mark Wrigglesworth and the London Philharmonic Orchestra likewise bring out the music-theatre, even Gilbert-and-Sullivan, qualities of the score. But there is a sense of lurking monstrosity which emerges with the two hunts for Grimes, clearly presented as lynchings. The second pursuit, with a burning cross and boathooks, also echoes visually the similar scene in Frankenstein.

Most of the performances, by a wonderfully well chosen cast of singers, are also theatrically neat and deceptively three dimensional. John Graham-Hall is a splendidly quavery Bob Boles, Christopher Maltman a spivvy Ned Keene, Stafford Dean a pompous, prurient Swallow and Hillary Summers (a late substitute for Jard van Nes) a splendidly melodramatic Mrs Sedley. Individually they are slightly weird, and collectively, stacked up in the gallery of the moot hall in the prologue, they are terrifying.

The key performance, though, are of course, those of Grimes and Ellen Orford. In this production, Grimes has no particular mystery -- he's not a visionary or a homosexual -- he's simply trapped in a cycle of violence and regret that are mirror-images of each other, forced into transgression every few seconds by the limitations of the Borough's moral order. Ellen's collusion is similarly basically an inability to break out of an abusive relationship. Vivian Tierney was an almost purely emotional Ellen, responsonding to Grimes' and the boy's pain by joining in rather than simply trying to enforce propriety in a benign way. Tierney's ability to express pain in beautiful singing is almost disturbing. The bruises were there in Ellen's voice long before Grimes hit her.

Completely heartbreaking, though, was Anthony Dean Griffey's Grimes. His voice is a fine lyric tenor, very agile and precise with the words. But his huge physical and dramatic presence, and his ability to express anger and grief, make his Grimes far more than a theatrical study. Again, there was more than a hint of Frankenstein's monster to him, with the additional torture of a beautiful voice that didn't relate to any inner beauty, only to a sense of pain and loss. Strikingly, "The great bear and the Pleiades" took time to come together -- this Grimes is not much of a visionary, more someone who has disoriented turns -- but "I've dreamed myself a kindlier home" was agonizingly perfect from the beginning.

Griffey's performance alone justifies the trip, but Tierney and the rest of the ensemble make this a production which might well be good for you but which you are highly likely to want to see in any case.

H.E. Elsom



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