If there is a city in Italy that Benjamin Britten seemed to foster a particular affinity with, that is Venice. The premiere of The Turn of the Screw at the Teatro La Fenice in 1954 marked but the beginning of a bond which maintained its strength well into the very last years of the composer’s life – “Ambiguous Venice, where water is married to stone and passion confuses the senses,” as Aschenbach murmurs in Britten’s late masterwork Death in Venice. Almost fifty years after his death, the reciprocity of the composer’s bond with La Fenice was confirmed by the theatre’s first-ever staging of the opera which skyrocketed his international fame, Peter Grimes. With Juraj Valčuha on the podium, Andrew Staples in the title role and Paul Curran directing, this Venetian production was an occasion not to be missed – and not just for Britten aficionados such as myself.

Andrew Staples (Peter Grimes)
© Michele Crosera

Since its premiere, Peter Grimes has always posed more doubts than it has solved. If this constitutes one of the reasons of its undying fascination, it also originates problems which require addressing when the opera reaches the stage. As is often the case in Britten, a gap lies where we would expect clarity: why is Grimes really an outcast? Although brutal, his violence is largely enabled by a system of child exploitation that is accepted and sustained by the Borough – the two sides share values and goals. So where does one draw the line? And what makes Grimes cross it? Paul Curran, who has directed the opera before, chose to preserve the opera’s reticence by focusing on the symptoms rather than on the cause, exploring the dynamics between the individual and the crowd.

Andrew Staples (Peter Grimes), Emma Bell (Ellen Orford), Sion Goronwy (Swallow) and ensemble
© Michele Crosera

Setting a bare environment that retains nothing of the original coastal landscape, Curran deprives Grimes even of the starry sky which inspires his moments of indecipherable lyricism. Serving as scenery, a few dismal-coloured platforms are arranged to form spaces that appear bleak, oppressive, or both. Here the townspeople chatter, sing, enjoy what the local pub has to offer – but they also speculate, scheme and organise a manhunt. By his own admission, Curran wanted to highlight the duality of all crowds, whose identity is separate and collective at once: each character has a distinct personality, but as soon as rage and resentment spread, the community turns into a chilling, faceless mob reminiscent of early Frankenstein film adaptations. A few details seem to suggest that their motives are ingrained in religious bigotry (Methodist Bob Boles actively instigating the crowd, who chase after Grimes holding Bibles in their hands); but the outrage exceeds its source, swelling into blind fury.

Peter Grimes at Teatro La Fenice
© Michele Crosera

Trapped – or rooted – in the hostile Borough, Grimes scoffs and scowls, pacing the floor like a caged animal. Curren portrays Grimes as rough and fractured, his inner schism astonishing when, right after an outbreak of wrath, he enters the pub and sings softly to the stars. Even his house, albeit neat and tidy, resembles a cell and is ominously slanted – part symbolic of the character’s instability, and perhaps part hint to his non-straightness.

If Curran foregrounds the clash between outcast and community, Valčuha’s interpretation ushered in what was missing in the director’s staging: the commanding presence of the sea, Grimes’ own alter ego. Coming from the orchestra pit, waves of sound rose and crashed continuously, whipping up whirlpools in surging crescendos. The conductor didn’t shy away from accentuating the brazen, percussive potential of the score, a side the audience is maybe less familiar with, but which evoked the roaring waters as much as Grimes’ wild temper. But just like the sea also knows tranquillity, Valčuha too proved able to slacken the tempos and quieten the orchestra to a hushed flow, especially during Grimes’ wonderfully executed “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”.

Emma Bell (Ellen Orford) and Mark S Doss (Captain Balstrode)
© Michele Crosera

Approaching one of the most complex tenor roles in the opera repertoire, Staples emerged triumphant. In addition to a confident stage presence, the English tenor displayed great control over his voice, ranging from growling retorts to dreamy filati and messe di voce. His luminous high notes cut through the glum fabric of the Borough’s life, isolating Grimes but also allowing him to stand out as the lone visionary that he is. By his side, Emma Bell portrayed a charismatic, sensitive Ellen, whose solid low and central register suited the character’s determination and protective attitude. Together, their voices merged beautifully in the short duet at the close of the Prologue. Finally, the picture wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Mark S Doss’ firm, full-bodied Balstrode, Cameron Becker’s relentless, brisk Bob Boles and the extraordinary cohesion and dynamic range of the La Fenice Chorus, at once ubiquitous and disembodied.

*****