I went to see Peter Grimes last weekend and hated yet another expressionist production where the director's vision took precedence over the work. (Production shot above.) How can the English National Opera, of all companies, mess up Peter Grimes? Peter Grimes and ENO is one of those combinations where tradition and context matter. The last version I saw there was gripping, but this one was just crass and insensitive. This gets me upset at two levels.This email arrived from Steve Freeman. It chimes with my own thoughts on the new English Touring Opera's Magic Flute which I saw, coincidentally, at Snape. But like Steve I am not anti-interpretation, and was very moved by Glyndebourne's new Hänsel und Gretel. The question 'Whatever happened to the original spirit of Sadler's Wells?' is particularly relevant as this company gave the premiere of Peter Grimes in June 1945. Reginald Goodall was the conductor, the story is here.
First, I'm so tired of the expressionist rut that the opera world seems to find itself in. We now have a tradition that's as hidebound as the old one, but without the advantage of history. I'm not actually anti-interpretation, I've seen plenty of weird productions that I liked (Richard Jones' Ring, for example), but if you're going to mess with the rules, you'd better be great (oh, and getting the singers pointing in the right direction is good too). In the meantime, I don't need every last sub-text to be telegraphed by writhing (we're not stupid, you know)--and I propose a ten-year ban on Nazi leather greatcoats.
Second, I'm wondering what happened to the spirit of Sadlers Wells? Solid productions at a price that "ordinary" people can afford? The ENO seems to be still trying to sustain its glory days in the '80s when it put Covent Garden to shame, but now the Royal Opera is doing great work, as are the regional companies. You can't be an iconoclast for ever, and I've been to too many ENO productions (e.g. Rheingold) where I had to stop watching. I think there is a remit for unpretentious, affordable opera that takes the work seriously--and that doesn't have to mean dull. If you can't make Peter Grimes gripping straight off the page, then you don't deserve to exist.
One final snipe. Most of the critics loved the production (and there were some good ideas, like the opening), but I think they should get out more. In particular, they should try sitting upstairs occasionally, to judge how well a production carries and the strength of the audience. The ENO audience is strikingly homogenous, and I think that's a symptom of something.
In the end, I can't tell if this is just me that's fed up, but I don't think it is.
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