Tosca has been staged on the ramparts of Rome and Turandot on the Great Wall of China, but putting Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach in June risked the inclemency of an early English summer, which proved frigid. Rehearsals and first performances of this open-air production were survived with heavy blankets and hip-flasks. Even after the gales ceased, greatcoats remained essential. There was never a risk of stage nudity in this production.
Adult content, on the other hand, is innate. Raising sympathy for a fisherman who caused the death of boys and may have abused them is as tough a call today as it was at the Sadlers Wells premiere in June 1945. Britten’s self-image as an outsider in a hostile world—gay, pacifist, an artist—is nowhere more forcibly experienced. How to play the loner Grimes is one of the supreme challenges in modern opera.
Alan Oke nails it from his first response to the examining coroner. Neither confrontational nor contrite, he stands tall in the dock, his voice pure and sure. A fishing man who lives by his catch, he needs to find another boy to take to sea. Scene by scene, we are drawn to his plight. Giselle Allen is a touching schoolma’am, David Kempster a convincing Captain Balstrode, the chorus a constant threat.
At the open-air beach performances, the pre-recorded Britten-Pears Orchestra was beamed in from indoors. The mix here is imperceptible and the sound unobtrusive; engineer Mike Hatch deserves a credit twice the size and conductor Steuart Bedford pulls off an extraordinary feat of coherence and endurance. But it’s Oke who makes the case for Peter Grimes and steals the show. There used to be two great Grimes on record: Peter Pears and Jon Vickers. Now there are three.