A Lonely Soul: Peter Grimes at the Palau de les Arts, València

Britten – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes – Gregory Kunde
Ellen Orford – Leah Partridge
Auntie – Dalia Schaechter
Niece 1 – Giorgia Rotolo
Niece 2 – Marianna Mappa
Balstrode – Robert Bork
Mrs Sedley – Rosalind Plowright
Swallow – Andrew Greenan
Ned Keene – Charles Rice
Bob Boles – Richard Cox
Rev Horace Adams – Ted Schmitz
Hobson – Lukas Jakobski

Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana / Christopher Franklin
Stage director – Willy Decker

Palau de les Arts, València.  Saturday, February 10th, 2018

As they whip themselves into a fury of hate, the inhabitants of the Borough, the town where Peter Grimes is set, declaim ‘he who despises us, we will destroy’.  This cry feels especially timely now in a world where societies seem to be split right down the middle and politicians trade on the fear of the ‘other’ to win and retain power for themselves, particularly so in the UK.  In Willy Decker’s staging, originally made for Brussels and here revived by Rebekka Stanzel, there is a universality to the setting that makes it feel both timeless in its Victorian costumes (John Macfarlane) as well as extremely immediate to those of us watching.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

What Decker succeeds in bringing out is the claustrophobic nature of the Borough, where there is always someone watching, ready to comment to others, and start putting gossip on trial.  This is achieved through the minute direction of individuals throughout the large cast and chorus.  What we see is a wide range of characters who then come together at times to create a dangerous mob.  In doing so, Decker created some stunning stage pictures – as they gathered to go to Grimes’ hut, Lukas Jakobski’s Hobson towered over them hitting the drum with fierce, dangerous force.  Later, as the sweater made by Ellen is found, the Reverend lifts it up on the crucifix as the chorus cries out for Grimes’ blood.  The bloodcurdling cries were absolutely terrifying, pinning me to the back of my seat.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

Yet this idea of a society that chastises the other, also seems to have an ability to justify for itself what might otherwise be considered immoral behaviour – prostitution in the case of the nieces and also in Mrs Sedley’s journey, from someone who had never been to a pub to someone who joined in and danced with the others.  I found it a most compelling idea, the fact that a society can change the rules for itself yet still ostracize others.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

In such a place, it was inevitable that Grimes would never fit in.  A dreamer who masked a simmering core of violence, this was an extremely complex and complicated character who was deeply misunderstood by the village and was never able to be one of them.  Predictable, then, that he would become the target of the mob.  Gregory Kunde brought a lifetime of experience to the role.  His was a bel canto Grimes – not so much in terms of sound but in terms of technique.  In his ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ aria, he shaded the tone masterfully, making every repetition of the note sound like a constantly evolving rainbow of vocal colour.  He made some intelligent use of voix mixte as he reflected on his life, and brought out the beauty of Grimes’ melismatic writing throughout.  Not only did he sing the role but he brought out the sheer pain felt by Grimes, his complicated, multifaceted nature, not only through the voice but also through his physicality.  This run, of which tonight was the fourth show of five, is Kunde’s debut in the role and it’s a role that suits him very well.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

Leah Partridge was a generous and dedicated Ellen.  The voice tends to shallowness at lower volumes but gains weight and fills out nicely when she sings above forte.  Her embroidery aria was full of passion and feeling – there was steel to her Ellen, the only genuine example of humanity in the Borough.  Her diction was impeccable as it indeed was the case throughout the entire cast.  The remainder of the huge cast was populated by mainly Anglophone singers.  One exception was Israeli mezzo, Dalia Schaechter, who was a deliciously raucous Auntie.  Rosalind Plowright certainly had great stage presence as Mrs Sedley, uptight and conniving, but the registers parted company a while back and she perhaps lacks the ideal contralto weight that the part perhaps needs.  Still, she was highly watchable.  Charles Rice revealed a very handsome baritone as Ned Keene and similarly Robert Bork was a warm and generous Balstrode, perhaps also revealing that there might be some further humanity somewhere in the Borough.  The remainder of the cast reflected the exceptionally high standards of the house.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

Christopher Franklin led a revelatory reading of the work.  He was alive to the lyricism in the piece yet also brought out its angularity, precisely that simmering violence that lays beneath the surface.  There was a rhythmic incisiveness to his reading that I found utterly compelling.  What he also succeeded in doing was making Britten’s sound world feel even more modern that it often does, through exploiting the kaleidoscopic range of instrumental colour at his disposal with this superb orchestra, in shimmering strings or raucous trumpets.  They were joined by the house chorus, the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana.  I have had some exceptional evenings in their company but this really took their artistry to the next level.  The sheer precision that they brought to even the most complicated syncopated writing was absolutely staggering.  Pitching was unfailingly accurate all night and the depth of sepulchral tone that they found in their off-stage cries of ‘Peter Grimes’ as Grimes contemplated death was astounding.  Similarly, their full-throated cries of ‘Peter Grimes’ were terrifying, chilling, and absolutely massive in impact.  The tone is always fresh, never that dreadful war of vibratos so common in other theatres, and they had clearly been superbly prepared by their director, Francesc Perales.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo / Mikel Ponce

This was a great evening in the theatre – one that for me, certainly made me reassess a work that I had always felt relatively cold towards.  Kunde’s Grimes was complex, conflicted and, as he faced death, absolutely devastating – a victim of circumstance who was misunderstood.  Yet, ultimately this was not just Grimes’ tragedy, and what the production succeeded in doing was making the work feel that everybody had something to lose in the Borough.  This Grimes is above all a company achievement for the Palau de les Arts.  It’s the house forces who make it what it is – a thrilling, moving and thought-provoking piece of music theatre.  Well cast, marvellously conducted and with choral singing and orchestral playing of a very rare quality, this was an evening that showed this estimable theatre at its very, very best.

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