Peter Grimes On Aldeburgh Beach

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

This experiment—an open-air staging of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh—succeeds despite its obvious limitations. The mood need not be set by scenery, wind machines, or backdrops—it’s all there; but it is assisted by John Walker’s moody, time-lapse images of changing weather (changing mostly for the worse) and seascapes. The performance (an amalgam of two plus a patch session) was recorded in June, 2013 and takes place on a long set (more than 100 feet) built right on the beach with the sea behind it. The costumes are more 1950s than the period of George Crabbe’s poem upon which the opera was based. Tim Albery’s production can hardly be more realistic in this unsheltered setting, and indeed, the lack of ambient artificiality brings out the most natural acting in the characters.

At times the lighting is an issue—it’s not quite dark enough for the storm scene that Grimes insanely interrupts, nor as light as it should be for church on a Sunday morning. But the chill it gives off is quite enough, and unique, and the scene in the last act, with the vicious chorus carrying both flashlights and flame-lit torches in the dark, is terrifying. The orchestra was pre-recorded at a concert performance a few days before, and Steuart Bedford led from the recording in a “hut” dug into the beach in front of the stage. There is great orchestral detail. One or two stage/pit inaccuracies might be expected under any circumstances. The singers sing live, but with amplification. You cannot sense any of this artifice.

The Britten/Pears and Colin Davis/Jon Vickers recordings remain the golden mean(s), but this performance is marvelous. Alan Oke is a fine Grimes—haunted and angry—but he stretches for some of the role’s highest notes. The same might be said about Giselle Allen’s Ellen Orford, but her absolute commitment to the role (and apparent love for Grimes) and superb diction are to be praised. David Kempster’s Balstrode is kind and genuine; Catherine Wyn-Rodgers is a remarkable harridan as Mrs. Sedley; Charles Rice’s Ned Keene is eccentric.

This whole undertaking has the aura of a special event, and indeed it is sui generis. You cannot but get taken up in the drama and atmosphere and there’s not a bad performance to be seen or heard. But as mentioned above, both Pears and Vickers offer such vivid, tormented, and entirely different interpretations that they are essential. This current DVD is an adjunct.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Pears/Britten (Decca); Vickers/Davis (Kultur)

  • Alan Oke (tenor); Giselle Allen (soprano); David Kempster, Charles Rice (baritone); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); others
  • Britten-Pears Orchestra, The Chorus of Opera North, Steuart Bedford


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