Letter from Aldeburgh

by The Editor

Stuart Millson reports on Peter Grimes at the Aldeburgh Festival

Dear Ben,

I can feel the special magic that the Festival instils into music, country side, sea side and people! And it is all because Peter and you bring to it very special qualities and perception and talents and skills – and concern. Love, Joyce

Letter from Joyce Grenfell to Benjamin Britten, founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, 29 June 1970

Every year, from 1962 until 1979, the celebrated entertainer and writer, Joyce Grenfell, attended Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival; delighting not just in this annual gathering of musicians from all over the world, but in the anticipation and ever-fresh excitement of travelling to the East Anglian coast in the company of her husband. Mrs. Grenfell kept a diary of delightful observations of those Aldeburgh outings, writing:England at its perfect best. Suffolk is so pleasing to me; those little villages with pink and pale yellow washed houses standing in gardens with peonies bursting into ruby red and pink and white, and wisteria and laburnum drips… And not a cloud in the sky. Today to the Maltings to see the Queen and hear Ben conduct his concert. It is lovely to be here again. We both start beaming as we get into East Anglia and particularly in June for the Festival.

On Sunday 9th June, following the route which our well-loved diarist would undoubtedly have taken, I drove to the Snape Maltings – the 800-seat concert hall, created by Britten and his lifelong collaborator, Peter Pears – to hear a performance of the 1945 opera, Peter Grimes. Leaving the main A12 highway near Woodbridge, I drove along lanes made more beautiful by Queen Anne’s lace, and constellations of daisies – edging closer to Snape and the River Alde, to the sound-world and the stage for the artistic life of one of the greatest of English composers.

The Festival (the sixty-sixth) had opened on Friday night with a concert performance of the work (broadcast live on Radio 3) conducted by the Britten specialist, Steuart Bedford, and with Alan Oke, tenor, in the title role. Sunday night – my night – would see a repeat, with the same forces – the Britten-Pears Orchestra, with the Chorus of Opera North and the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

The story of Peter Grimes, a fisherman with a tortured soul, living at the margins of society, was inspired by the writings and unromantic realism of the Suffolk clergyman, chronicler and poet, George Crabbe (1754-1832) – many commentators sensing a resemblance between Grimes and Britten’s own personal separation from and moral contentions with conventional society (Britten being both a pacifist and a homosexual). There is some truth in this view, although Britten’s artistic and material success, and the cultural attraction which he had for so many people – from Rostropovich to Joyce Grenfell! – undermines, to some extent, the comparison between composer and his most famous character. If anything, the composer was something of a child of his time – the 1930s, from whose cultural milieu he arose, containing many leading thinkers and artists of similar dispositions; and we can also see many dozens of photographs of “Ben” (in sandals and fisherman’s pullover), out and about in Aldeburgh and every bit the informal celebrity, chatting with great ease to local people. When his affection for the monarchy is also considered – the Queen visiting the Snape Maltings; the Royal box decorated with summer flowers; the audience standing for Britten’s realisation of God Save the Queen (“so terribly loving” and “everyone ashiver with pleasure” said Joyce Grenfell in her diary) it is difficult to paint the man as a complete outsider.

What one can say, with complete certainty, is that the three Acts of Peter Grimes (known to a wider audience for their famous “Four Sea Interludes”) revolutionised music in this country – re-casting an operatic tradition that had already been well-served by Dame Ethel Smyth and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but suddenly injecting the language of English music with a distinctive, prickling 20th-century tension and a clear, brutal honesty. The arts in this country were at once steered into new, raging, unsettling waters by Britten – and the sinister, dreamy, half-not-in-this-world fisherman of the Suffolk coast, Grimes, still lurks at the eye of the storm.

To most people, an opera begins with a grand overture… not so with this work. A salty-flavoured, dotted, hesitant tune leads us into a court hearing, in which the local worthies are trying to discover the truth about the death (at sea) of a boy, apprenticed to Grimes. In the end, the coroner, Mr. Swallow (played at the Snape Maltings by Henry Waddington) concludes that the apprentice has died in accidental circumstances, but it is strongly suggested that the strange fisherman employs no further assistants. The scene brilliantly evokes all the gossip, suspicion and clipped, official language of a legal hearing in a provincial place, yet Grimes comes away, brooding and disliking the local establishment and people – determined that he will, one day, be a success. His only two friends in the village are Ellen Orford (the schoolteacher, sung by Giselle Allen who is almost as tormented as the man she has befriended and tried to help – tormented, that is, by her inability to reason with him and to drag him from the unrelenting misery of his lonely life) and Captain Balstrode, whose portrayal by baritone, David Kempster, was another outstanding feature of the production.

On the platform at the Snape Maltings, the twelve soloists were lined up in front of the orchestra, and despite it being a concert performance, played their parts with as much of an operatic sense of acting as the full-to-the-brim platform space would allow. The entire cast distinguished itself, and made this a truly memorable production – but throughout the evening, my eye was continually drawn to the face and movements of Alan Oke – Grimes. Oke has an intensity of expression anyway (I remember this from a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony at the Proms, two years ago) but for Sunday night’s opera, he was in character for the entire duration of the drama. Frowning, nervous, defiant, and in the end, driven and contorted by the persecution of the villagers (they are made to think that he has murdered his apprentices), the tenor lead-character made us believe that we were on the beach with him – sharing in the collapse of reason and sanity, and waiting for the end. And the final scene, in which Ellen and Balstrode, no longer with any power to help Grimes, stand with him for the last time, a shocked silence lingered in the auditorium. Balstrode’s gentle, but deathly instruction to Peter – to sail out, beyond sight of land, and sink the boat – resembled the switching off of the life-support machine, the end of the nightmare, the last rites. Earlier in the proceedings, the audience listened to the storm music – timpani and brass, and a hellish, torrent of strings screaming and battering against the brickwork walls of the Snape Concert Hall – but somehow, the ghostly desolation of Grimes’s end made for the moment of greater power.

Yet there are tender, melancholy moments in the opera, such as the scene in which Grimes dreams of a comfortable home, and of a time when there will be no fear; a time when he has confronted and confounded his critics, with the ever-loyal Ellen at his side, as his wife. Ellen, too, and other female members of the cast sing, in the second act, of the hopelessness of loving men; and a scene in the inn sees Grimes – as if caught up in some strange hallucination – remembering the stars that he sees in the heavens when drifting on the ocean.

The orchestral score (and Steuart Bedford and his players gave their all, through every turn of the tide) also brings to life the call of sea-birds, and – just like a view from the Snape Maltings itself – opens a window to the sky, the reeds and the Alde estuary beyond; to the very Borough which made Britten a Freeman in 1951 and whose characters and civic life continue, despite the storms, sea-erosion, collapse of sandy cliffs… and the just-visible boat, sinking far out toward the horizon…

Article originally published by the Quarterly Review. Details of how to purchase a recording of the opera can be found on the QR's website here.

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