The set for Grimes on the Beach
Besides its international concert life (with the nearby Snape Maltings hosting a Proms series and the Aldeburgh Festival), Aldeburgh is perhaps best known for its excellent fish and chips. Although many of Monday’s visitors were indeed clutching bags of steaming chips from the Golden Galleon, their principal reason for flocking to the town was for a landmark musical event: Grimes on the Beach.
Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes opened this year’s Aldeburgh festival in commemoration of the composer’s centenary celebrations, and the opera’s migration to the beach emphasises the importance of the work’s local connection. Britten himself lived in Aldeburgh (his home from 1957, The Red House, has recently reopened), and the town plays an important role in the drama: the prologue takes place in the Moot Hall (just metres down the beach from the performance), and fishermen still bring the day’s catches into the huts dotted along the shoreline. However, it was the presence of the sea which truly brought the opera to life. The crashing waves and cries of soaring seagulls grounded the drama on the very beach which Britten frequented, and the chill wind carried the unmistakeable salty tang to the audience huddled in their scarves and hats over Thermos flasks.
Leslie Travers’ set was comprised of a number of fishing boats, some upturned as if thrown from the waves in a violent storm. Wonky lampposts sat along two sections of boardwalk, with wooden ladders and scattering of barrels helping to create a sense of vernacular construction. The 1800-strong audience were divided between tiered seating and the pebble beach, with many taking advantage of the wandering hot drink vendors.
The production was visually and dramatically stunning. The Mosquito fighter which looped over the set introduced the 1940s setting: a reference to Britten’s status as a conscious objector in light of the opera’s conflict between individual and society. The 8:30 pm beginning was carefully calculated to ensure that the sky would be dark by the storm sequence to great effect: after ‘What Harbour Shelters Peace’, Alan Oke remained stood on top of a fishing boat, his arms spread wide and black waterproof coat buffeted in the wind as the opening notes of the storm Interlude rang out. Much of the theatrical impact came from the chorus: floral tea dresses were gradually replaced by dark hues as they evolved into a menacing mob. Tim Albery’s dramatic vision embraced the setting: the procession to hunt down Grimes in Act II set off down the beach, with the beat of the drum and crunching of pebbles gradually receding into the distance to spine-tingling effect.
Albery and his team valiantly battled the elements, and for the most part triumphed. Steuart Bedford conducted from within a tin-roofed dugout in the beach, synchronising the singers with a pre-recorded audio track of chorus (to strengthen sound) and orchestra. Recording and live performance were well-balanced, and the blustery weather barely interfered with microphones. The performers managed to hide their discomfort at the wintry weather well: the nieces still sauntered about in summer dresses, and barely a shiver could be seen. Lucy Carter’s lighting was most effective, from lightning flashes during the storm sequence to atmospheric hues sensitively coordinated with the darkening sky.
The solo roles were excellent. Although Alan Oke’s performance struggled to reconcile the violent and mellow sides to the character of Grimes, his final soliloquy made for an appropriately heart-rending climax to the opera. Giselle Allen’s crisp tones lent an air of authority to Ellen Orford (making her realisation of Grimes’ guilt all the more poignant), while David Kempster’s Captain Balstrode was at once commanding and sympathetic. The coquettish nieces (played by Lexi Hutton and Charmian Bedford) were also a highlight, adding a touch of comedy to the proceedings.
It is a testament to the vision of Aldeburgh Music that it can pull off such a technical and artistic feat with such success. Grimes on the Beach was a brilliant way to commemorate the Britten centenary, and those who were lucky enough to be there will remember this most memorable staging for many years to come.