woensdag 9 maart 2022

Stefan Herheim directs Peter Grimes in Munich (****½)


In his introduction, alluding to the Russian military operation in Ukraine, artistic director Serge Dorny speaks of "the oppressed" and of "barbarism," without naming victims or perpetrators. Flags are not to be seen and national anthems are not to be heard during this premiere of Peter Grimes in Munich. But with the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, or the European Hymn, the performance is nevertheless dedicated to Ukraine. It doesn't seem wise to me for a cultural institution, to take a side in a military conflict that could easily have been avoided by listening more closely to The Bear. What's more: in no time at all, the cultural world seems to be taken in by NATO propaganda, only to unleash a hysterical wave of russophobia worldwide. Wonder what conscientious objector Benjamin Britten would think of this?

The fragility of innocence, the abuse of power, the decline of the outsider under social pressure, the horror of the war machine, the emancipation of homoerotic desire, these are some of the themes that play a major role in Benjamin Britten's music-dramatic oeuvre. From Peter Grimes (1945) to Death in Venice (1973), Britten has always profiled himself as an astute commentator on society. A homosexual himself, a pacifist and a conscientious objector, there is no doubt that his humanism and his commitment to social fringe elements was a reflection on his own situation.

In Peter Grimes' rejection we can see a reflection of Britten's own experiences as a conscientious objector. No doubt he must have felt some connection to his character, well aware of the pain of having to live a life of lies or hide one's true nature. A good production by Peter Grimes therefore should elicit empathy with the complex character of the excluded, even though throughout the play we will never know how the first apprentice met his end or whether he was abused. Stefan Herheim's production of Peter Grimes is entirely successful in this regard.

Rather than describing Peter Grimes as a victim of catholic obscurantism in a fishermen's village, as Willy Decker did in Brussels (1994), Stefan Herheim makes him a scapegoat. The kind of scapegoat "that a community needs when it feeds not on trust and love, but on fear." This idea must have been inspired not least by the delusion of the day. We have been familiar with fear pornography for two years now. You may remember the "pandemic of the unvaccinated" and the eagerness with which left-wing talking heads spontaneously started shaming people who refused the jab. When we see The Borough fall prey to creeping mass hypnosis, the production team holds up a mirror to us too.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen als Ellen Orford © Wilfried Hösl

Is it necessary to stage the famous "sea interludes"? No, but it should be clear that they are only fully appreciated in the theater. They zoom in on the tormented psyche of Grimes and his fellow villagers with the passacaglia as the highlight. Herheim brings them to the stage as dream sequences or as stroboscopic light shows ("storm"). The passacaglia, wistfully introduced by the viola, is a little gem where the antagonistic forces surrounding the fate of the apprentice, wavering between division and reconciliation, culminate in a pitch-black premonition of hell.

Silke Bauer's fascinating theatre space is halfway between a parish hall and a medieval abbey. The wooden barrel vault rests on the whole like an upturned ship's hull. Deep down, a stage with an old-fashioned curtain creates the space for the church service, the dance party and the sparse video projections. The highly alert lighting direction by Michael Bauer can instantly change the atmosphere in this solid unitary set. Wild, untamed nature is excluded and will remain so. This Moot Hall seems to be an inescapable meeting place for the whole village. Even before the conductor's upbeat, the characters slowly trickle in, while outside the waves pound on the rocks and the sunlight seeping in seems to have a healing transcendence. All seem shaken by a recent event. Is this an epilogue that precedes Britten's prologue?

The second act belongs entirely to Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Ellen Orford. The first scene, with its interweaving of the Sunday morning interlude, the chorale in the church and Ellen's dialogue with the apprentice, is one of the most brilliant pages of the play. Willis-Sørensen makes it the first vocal highlight while the rector celebrates Mass against the glare of the surf. Willis-Sørensen sings and plays a quasi-perfect Ellen Orford. With her Bambi eyes and generous smile, she does not need to fake a Gutmensch. The voice has a beautiful timbre and seems to project excellently. She sets the most dramatic phrases broadly and sensually with overwhelming effect. Her duet with Peter culminates in "We've failed", shocking as a scream. Dancing the polonaise, the villagers surrender to their mass psychosis during "Grimes is at his exercise". In the beautiful quartet that precedes the passacaglia, it is again Willis-Sørensen who draws the attention, this time in the glittering light of the full moon. Next month she will sing Elsa in Frankfurt.

The chorus, claiming perhaps the most important role in the piece, performs superbly, the obvious highlight being the unaccompanied fortissimo cries "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Grimes!". These are always effective. The hysterical villagers point accusingly in all directions and Herheim's abrupt transition to Grimes' isolation is grandiose. It is in his devastating final monologue that Stewart Skelton gives his best. Casting directors usually have a choice between a heroic-voiced superhero (Crabbe's Grimes) and an introverted, possibly homosexual in-between who is able to deliver a more poetic psychogram (Britten's Grimes). The ideal Peter Grimes, in my opinion, should express both aspects of this inner conflict. Stuart Skelton is at home in both.

At the end, Ellen stands on a rock like Senta but she doesn't jump. Her Flying Dutchman must redeem himself.

Iain Patterson is a committed Balstrode and Herheim also portrays him as a suitor of Ellen. That's why he can be so harsh in the heartbreaking farewell to Peter. All the minor roles are well cast. Very nice indeed is Jennifer Johnston as the spiteful Mrs Sedley in a suit jacket and wearing a Thatcher wig.

Edward Gardner makes Peter Grimes sound like a true 20th century score, transparent and dynamically challenging, with the brass section showing off and thundering timpani in the passacaglia. Very good solo moments are reserved for clarinet and flute.
Jennifer Johnston als Mrs Sedley © Wilfried Hösl

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