A spotless Grimes from ENO

Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten

English National Opera Fri 21st,

Ipswich Cineworld Sun 23rd 02/14

Peter Grimes Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford Elza van den Heever
Balstrode Iain Paterson
Auntie Rebecca de Pont Davies
Swallow Matthew Best
Ned Keene Leigh Melrose
Bob Boles Michael Colvin
Mrs Sedley Felicity Palmer
Hobson Matthew Trevino
Reverend Horace Adams Tim Robinson
First Niece Rhian Lois
Second Niece Mary Bevan

Conductor Edward Gardner
Director David Alden
Set Designer Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting Designer Adam Silverman
Choreographer Maxine Braham

This afternoon saw English National Opera’s first foray into the trend of Live broadcasting of shows with the transmission of ‘Peter Grimes’. I say “trend” lightly, as this seems to be anything but, the juggernaut of transmissions from opera, classical, dance, and current pop will no doubt continue to roll on unabated.

I’ll focus here on the presentation in cinema as I saw it, with some thoughts as to how it differed from how I saw it in person a few days before.

For those that are interested, let’s begin with the technical outline first. Readers can happily skip this to go to my thoughts on the show proper.  When I was there for what I assume was the technical rehearsal on Feb 21st I counted five cameras; One static below Dress Circle, one “robo” mounted at the pit facing conductor, a dolly in front of Row A in stalls, and a crane/jib with operator mounted in Box T. Lastly a “roving” camera and operator infiltrated stage and pit. Shotgun mics were placed at dress circle level to pick up projection, with what looked to be two overheads above pit centre (possibly multidirectional) which seem to be have been flown from the ceiling about 50 feet above orchestra.

Quite rightly the seats in front of the dolly had been warned about the presence of a camera system, and their seats prices reduced, I think. I should have hated to have been in that row, with the camera gliding right and left all night, but the theatre audience needs must be inconvenienced for the viewing pleasure of the far greater number watching in cinemas*.

I have reservations about the showing of theatre in cinema, and the same stand for opera. As I see it, the tools of acting for stage differ from screen; acting for stage is less suited for that on-screen. As acting forms a component of good opera this is no different for opera recording and broadcasting. Take for example a vocal aria, which may soar into the amphitheatre and upper reaches of a house as it washes over the stalls/parterre. Those far away hear only the voice and orchestra, and consider it beautiful. Those in the stalls hear and see better and judge accordingly (as with most performance, the face, expression and finally voice are here the focus of any judgement).

Problems arise due to presence of cameras. Not because performers are unsettled by them but because of the degree of intimacy they grant. Those at cinema are blessed with macro close-ups and as Stephen Jay Taylor notes in his review of the Met’s Siegfried in iMax, such close-ups are often inimical to un-judgemental viewing. If Mr Taylor was given to consider Alberich’s dentition, so too I found myself musing here about how Mrs Crabbe’s hair looked, how the twins would manage to preserve their modesty as they reclined, and yes sadly too, the condition of Mr. Skelton’s dentition. It became less about the music and more about visual, which we as a society prize above all.

The critical issue here is one of exactly that, criticism. Under the watchful impartial camera-eye all is laid bare. Thus as one Twitter user noted, Ms DiDonato may be singing Rusalka most serenely, but en camera her face is anything but rapt, her expression may as well have been a shot of her considering dinner options or how best to exfiltrate from dressing room post-performance.

Happily I will report that contrary to my previous experiences of this type of thing (most notably Hytner’s NT Hamlet) the camera here was kinder, because the talent broader. An impartial eye can only report as it is framed, and directed, and what it –  directed Andy Monahan and the team at Serpent Productions and Altive media in a slick but no means totally perfect manner – framed here was poise, skill and effortless professionalism.

Thus when Grimes is defeated both by his own defiance and his own hubris, at the close of the final Act, when he writhes and declaims and weeps and screams a threnody of his cursed name, we see Grimes/Skelton’s face in contortion of agony. Here is theatre as best we enjoy it, here conviction, and here pathos. So too, Elza van dem Heever’s Orford – a paradigm case of conviction, skill and acting come together, who wept real tears as she bade Grimes farewell. We saw her anguish and here close-up worked. We see Grimes cradle his ‘prentice, his mouth in a silent howl. How can we flinch from this, or look away? If anything it felt too intrusive, too painful, theatre here achieving its strongest representation by virtue of our seeing every tear grown and fall. (Might this be though, just another instance of “emotion porn” that makes up our soaps, our reality TV, our news?)

Skelton deserves his accolades. His first note of Scene Two “Go there!” was spine-tingling (I was reminded of his show-piece aria ‘Gott! Welch Dunkel hier‘ when he was Florestan in Bieito’s mesmerising Fidelio. The declamatory power was the same.) So too his hushed reverent ‘Now the great Bear and Pleiades‘ was sung sweetly and softly. The man can do it all. No wonder too he had been off in a show or two with an infection. In places he screamed in despair and anger. I heard him clear his throat after one such outburst when I saw it at the Coli, and wondered how such dramatic belief could come at a cost to singing, but as here, he sang on undiminished and unaffected. Colour me impressed indeed.

And not impressed with just Mr Skelton. The cast as a whole were strong top to bottom. Mary Bevan and Rhian Lois were fantastic as the two nieces, fitting neatly into Alden’s chilling phantasmagoric. I enjoyed Bevan as Papagena in Mcburney’s Magic Flute, and I believe she is to sing in Nozze de Figaro. soon. Leigh Melrose was hilarious odious as the slimy spiv Ned (and his little wince at curtain call away from Sedley was a cute improv). His flattery and courtship of Felicity Palmer’s same, as a curtain-twitching repressed termagant brought comic relief.

I was less taken with the hand jive moments (did it exist “back then”?) and the simulated err…manual stimulation, but this is the 2010’s and I am sure many in the audience would have pink tutus and simulated handjobs, if it meant avoiding the worst excesses of “Regie“. (But, can one imagine the fun that say, Bieito would have with Grimes?)

Thus the cast. I did however have a few nitpicks with the Cinema screening, comparisons with the polished MET and Royal Opera House shows are inevitable. We enjoy with those, continuity from luminaries and “stars” (Terfel, DiDonato, Voigt, Domingo) which necessarily adds to the lustre and importantly, the continuity of the showing. We are not just at a cinema screening, but at a compered and guided event, a through-composed evening, if you like. I don’t mean to suggest that the ENO engage anyone like the above, but the first interval had a lady whose name I sadly didn’t catch and who said we welcome to the evening’s showing, which confused me as we were still afternoon by my watch. I’d love to see a little more attention to presentation here, by which I mean, the presence of a presenter. Budget and scheduling permitting, of course (which may be ENO’s problem, have they the money for this, after spending so much on this broadcast?)

Back to the cameras. When I watched live, I noticed a man in character but with what looked to be a sack on his back loitering around the rear of the stage in crowd scenes. Monahan celebrates this in the BBC article  .This was the roving camera man. He descended into the pit at times, but his white sacking proved a major distraction – not just to me, but to the rear of the first violins who it seems, had not been briefed that he’d infiltrate their ranks as he did, to some alarm and then amusement. Happily by act two he was in black and less visible but still a-roving.

The director of our screening hopes that one day cameras on stage will immerse us in our entertainment, and that having a camera-man thus deployed gives us new angles, insight into a piece removed from the “plonk down in front of the stage” method of watching we are used to. I am unconvinced. The reverse shots, from the chorus POV looking into the auditorium, I found distracting. I am un-postmodern/modern to want my fourth wall very firmly in place. Anything breaching this breaches the spell so carefully woven by orchestra, audience consent, and cast. I thought those shots intrusive and unnecessary.

So too, I noticed the house lights were not be totally extinguished, to help us feel more involved. As I watched the show in person a few nights before for the technical rehearsal/backup-recording, I wondered why the lights stayed on. It’s not something I would want to happen all the time for these ENO Screen events if I attend at their transmission. See above, I like my spell woven, not drawn to attention. I wonder if this last isn’t a convenience for the f-stops of the cameras, the excuse given for the audience a contrivance to explain this away.

(As an aside, our subtitles vanished for the entirety of Act 1. Did yours?)

To conclude the analysis of technical presentation, I have to offer that for me, the shots of the orchestra during the Interludes were for the most part adequate, but could have done with a lot more polish. Necessarily the work here is harder, due to exigencies of staging, theatre layout and the like. (In how many opera anyway, does the pit need to be shown, except for any overture or prelude?) A pit is no place to be deploying cameras galore: it is the engine room, its inhabitants at the coalface of the piece, and as such is pared or crammed as music dictates – cameras an afterthought. Limited to the camera facing Gardner, the roving camera and the dolly, shots had to be creatively manipulated, and the team did a pretty good job in difficult circumstances. I have been spoiled by the Proms though, and similar. One is used to cued shots just at the right moment. Here we had a few wobbles, literally, and a few ponderous shots of the cor anglias players sitting there, lots of trumpet action, and some just-in-the-nick of time harpist runs. It felt like the cameras were always chasing the music, and often at the expense of what I considered the main themes: where I would have chosen to show the violins, came flutes. Where I would have shown timpani, (of which there were only a few shots!) were shown violins. Yes, I am being picky here, but I think greater work could be done. The Proms camera-people (and perhaps their directors/mixers) all work from scores and are well drilled. That same lesson brought to this at the ENO would have seen magic from the pit, commensurate with what we were hearing. This is not to dismiss what was truly stellar playing from the band, but only to wish to see them have justice done of their hard work.

Onwards to happier thoughts. Mention must be made of the peerless ENO Chorus, the best ensemble in town. Naturally such talent comes only under the expertise of an equally talented taskmaster, and credit goes to (the website says) Mr David Dyer for the performance he helped forge from this most glorious collection of voices. Pinpoint precision, perfect diction, and such power and potency. When I saw it live, my ears buzzed with the strength of conviction bursting from every chest. Here again, the cameras did not lie. Not only did we witness wonderful singing, but more importantly, each and every member acted their socks off. At no point did I spot anyone coasting. Conviction, above all, is the ENO chorus’ metier. Ever since I saw them in Deborah Warner’s St John Passion about 12 years ago, they have been established in my mind as a perfect unit. Most recently in the finales of Fidelio, and in Magic Flute they blew my socks off, and so here. So too, one can see why Grimes fled from their cries like the howling of Erinyes. Their denunciation “Peter Grimes!” given before Interlude IV was truly terrifying and heart-racing. What a group! Special mention must be given to soprano Jane Read who enters the stage singing the first line of what almost becomes a Chorale to Grimes, which swells to wash over us ‘in ceaseless motion’

If Operaman is right to comment on reservations it is to Alden’s credit that his Grimes elides or survives such concerns.  Tragedy is only as powerful as the connection it forges with each audience member, and it seems Alden’s Grimes struck gold with a perfect pairing of music, direction and cinematography. It worked and how lucky we are to have seen it revived.

Benvenuto Cellini follows Grimes in June as ENO Screen’s second outing. I hear they are planning five more in the coming season. I certainly look forward to more.

Obligatory cellphone pic. Probably property of ENO

Obligatory cellphone pic.
Probably property of ENO


*As a totally ballpark figure, I’d suggest that one might times the Coliseum’s capacity of approx 2350 by at least say five, to reach the number of total people watching. I’d be interested in actual figures.


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