Live and Let Live: Peter Grimes at the Theater an der Wien

Britten – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes – Eric Cutler
Ellen Orford – Agneta Eichenholz
Auntie – Hanna Schwarz
Niece 1 – Miriam Kutrowatz
Niece 2 – Valentina Petraeva
Balstrode – Andrew Foster-Williams
Mrs Sedley – Rosalind Plowright
Swallow – Thomas Faulkner
Ned Keene – Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Bob Boles – Rupert Charlesworth
Rev Horace Adams – Erik Ärman
Hobson – Lukas Jakobski

Arnold Schoenberg Chor, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien / Thomas Guggeis.
Stage director – Christof Loy.

Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.  Saturday, October 23rd, 2021.

Tonight’s Peter Grimes marked the return of Christof Loy’s staging to the Theater an der Wien, here revived by Georg Zlabinger.  This run, of which I saw the fourth performance of five, also marked the debut of Eric Cutler in the title role, joined by an Anglophone and multilingual cast, conducted by the youthful Thomas Guggeis.

Loy gives us a setting that remains stark throughout, the black box set accessorized only with a few chairs, with Grimes’ bed remaining a constant presence at the front of the stage.  Instead, he uses the extensive cast to provide visual interest, using the chorus to give us some highly memorable stage pictures – whether ranged around the back of the set passing judgment on Grimes, or crowded around him, intimidating him in the Inn.  This is a world where conforming comes first, anyone who doesn’t is sneered upon.  Yet, Loy also gives us a universe of people desperate for comfort, be it romantic or through drugs.  Late night, in the Inn, we see Lukas Jakobski’s Hobson dancing with another man, as if in desperate need of a love between men that the village would frown on.  In Grimes, both Agneta Eichenholz’s Ellen and Andrew Foster-Williams’s Balstrode see an object of desire, Grimes’s very inability to connect on a human level providing them with a figure on whom to project their own needs – whether physical in the case of Balstrode, who often holds Grimes through the course of the evening, or emotional in the case of Ellen. The injury that Ellen sees on John the apprentice is a hickey, the shock of seeing history repeat itself less that he is necessarily being abused, and more that it reinforces a sense of Grimes’s sexuality that Ellen almost doesn’t want to believe.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Loy’s reading, then, is one that brings out the queerness of the story.  He transforms the narrative into one of misunderstood desire.  The highly charismatic actor, Gieorgij Puchalski, incarnates John as a longhaired, bearded youth with a sixpack.  One dripping with sexual interest, tempting a sensible pants-suited Ellen, or the more sober, sexually repressed Balstrode.  Yet when Grimes sees John and Balstrode engaging with each other, this provokes a violent reaction from Grimes that becomes visually shocking, with Cutler’s Grimes throwing furniture across the stage, expressing an anger that, up until that point, had remained firmly below the surface.  I found Loy’s reading utterly compelling.  His bringing out of a society that abhors difference, all while indulging in hypocritical behaviour, felt all too real.  There’s a complexity here that feels truly human – of a need for affection that cannot be understood by those feeling it, nor by those receiving it.  Loy gives us a world in which its inhabitants don’t understand each other, and in not understanding themselves, find themselves incapable of truly understanding others.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Cutler gave us a seriously impressive Grimes.  His tenor is one of undeniable beauty, yet one also capable of heft and power.  This combination allowed Cutler to offer us a Grimes of immense complexity.  His ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ was sung with dreamy introspection, but even here, through Cutler’s judicious use of dynamics, there was a violence underneath threatening to emerge.  He also savoured the long melismatic lines, singing with an impeccable legato, shading the tone, making use of a honeyed voix mixte.  Cutler also made much of the text, using it as starting point to colour the line.  What struck me most about Cutler’s performance was the sheer artistry that went into incarnating his character so fully – both physically and musically.  Above all, there was a sense of an artist singing a role he was born to sing, precisely thanks to that combination of easy lyricism and power occasionally unleashed.  Cutler gave us a character who could barely understand himself, who was incapable of understanding others who opened themselves up to him.  His is a major assumption of this mighty role.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Eichenholz gave us an Ellen sung with sheer beauty of tone.  The voice soared with lunar loveliness in her embroidery aria, with an easy top and evenness of emissions.  Her diction was good, but perhaps she could have done more with the text, using it as a starting point for the line.  That said, her physical representation of someone out of place in a society that saw conformity and brutality as easy answers, was deeply affecting.  As indeed, was her closing scene with Foster-Wiliams’s Balstrode.  Tonight, this scene moved me more than on any previous occasion I’ve seen it.  Foster-Williams bringing out a haunted desire in his stage presence, one unwilling to give up on a happiness he had desperately wanted to have.  The final scene that saw Balstrode in Grimes’s bed, the mob looking in on him, perhaps ready to make him their next victim, was seriously poignant.  Foster-Williams sang the role in his compact, focused baritone, even from top to bottom. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

In the remainder of the cast, Hanna Schwarz sang her Auntie in her distinctive copper-toned mezzo.  I’m not quite sure what language she was singing in, but from time to time words were discernible.  The registers parted company in Rosalind Plowright’s mezzo some time ago, but what is undimmed is her stage presence and clarity of diction.  Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang Ned Keene in a virile, masculine baritone and impeccable English.  Rupert Charlesworth brought his light, somewhat reedy tenor, to the role of Bob Boles, while Lukas Jakobski towered over the cast both physically and vocally with his big burly bass.  Alongside a very well blended pair of Nieces, the remainder of the cast reflected the exceptional standards at this address.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The singing of the Arnold Schoenberg Chor was phenomenal.  Their accuracy of tuning and precision of ensemble, despite a very busy staging for them, inspired admiration.  They switched effortlessly between full-throated impassioned singing and whispered sprechgesang with ease.  That big moment, as they called out ‘Peter Grimes’, the stage plunged into darkness with handheld torches shining into our eyes, was overwhelming, both in terms of volume and in the focused burst of sound they were able to produce.  There was no war of vibratos here.  Instead, we heard choral singing of the highest distinction. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

A final revelation this evening was Thomas Guggeis’s conducting.  Still in his twenties, Guggeis gave notice of a major talent.  He founded his reading on a strong rhythmic framework, yet also allowed the longing lyricism to come to the fore.  Tempi were swift but felt absolutely right.  He obtained superlative playing from the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien – strings and winds illustrating the iciness of maritime winds, while horns simulated the saltiness of the sea.  Guggeis gave us a reading that surged with nautical force, his ear for texture and its rhythmic manifestation something very special indeed.  Moreover, Guggeis made this piece sound like a major contribution to twentieth-century opera.  Guggeis made Britten sound like a cousin of Stravinsky and Prokofiev and central to mid-twentieth century music.  His reading left me overwhelmed and completely convinced.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was a very special evening in the theatre and one that will surely remain for a long time in the memory of its audience.  Loy’s staging is one that takes us into the heart of a dysfunctional society, one that is based in outward conformism, but on the inside is intolerant and lacking in love.  He shows us how desire can take many forms, and how that desire and need for the affection of another can lead to heartbreak and unhappiness.  Anchored by a towering account of the title role, superb singing across the board, an exceptional chorus and orchestra, and conducting of rare insight, it was deservedly rewarded with a massive ovation from the Theater an der Wien public.

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