When the Wiener Staatsoper puts names like Jonas Kaufmann, Sir Bryn Terfel, Simone Young and rising superstar Lise Davidsen on the bill, it’s hard to not imagine a rousing success, even with a production of Peter Grimes that it’s time to put out to sea without a paddle. Kaufmann cannot seem to take a wrong step these days and his role debut as Grimes is original if not completely satisfying. His fisherman is a broken figure, driven mad by grief; a societal pariah who cannot find comfort even if it is staring him in the face. Kaufmann’s haunting falsetto as he mourned the loss of his apprentices in the final act landed better than rage-filled moments where more mettle – and vocal metal – was called for.

Jonas Kaufmann (Peter Grimes) and Florens Siener (John)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Terfel was absolutely convincing as the lynchpin of the action, his Captain Balstrode the true moral center of a society shown as very much adrift; his warm bass-baritone simply commands respect. However, the most brilliant individual performance was unequivocally Norwegian soprano Davidsen, in her stage debut as Ellen Orford, who possesses an instrument that can only be described as glorious and she wields it with exceptional control. There is not a part of Davidsen’s impressive range that does not speak clearly to the back of the hall, and she can feather out her sound to a pianississimo that still carries. The quartet of women in Act 2 was a highlight, and her Embroidery Aria powerfully heartbreaking.

Florens Siener (John) and Lise Davidsen (Ellen)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The rest of the cast was solid, from house favorite Wolfgang Bankl as the lawyer Swallow, Martin Häßler as apothecary Ned Keene and Thomas Ebenstein as the drooling, smarmy Bob Boles. Auntie (ensemble member Noa Beinart) was a resolute mezzo presence, offering the townsfolk more practical pleasures of the flesh and loosely corralling her flighty “nieces” (Ileana Tonca and Aurora Marthens), and Stephanie Houtzeel provided comic relief as the excitable town gossip, Mrs Sedley. Carlos Osuna as the Rev Horace Adams, and Erik Van Heyningen (Hobson) rounded out the ensemble effectively. While the diction ranged from excellent to incomprehensible, vocally there was little to complain about.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Captain Balstrode) and Jonas Kaufmann (Peter Grimes)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Captaining the crew with a steady hand from the pit was Simone Young, who drove the Staatsoper orchestra through some truly bombastically virtuosic interludes. Though on occasion I could have stood for a tad more precision in the large ensembles and a bit less orchestral volume vis-à-vis the voices, the sea effectively – as in the plot – drove the drama. Britten’s tricky score is an unwieldy beast but it was in excellent hands; a relief considering that the Arnold Schoenberg Chor had jumped in this week to reinforce house ranks, severely thinned by Omicron.

Lise Davidsen (Ellen)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

The fly in the ointment of the evening was Christine Mielitz’ dated production, which manages to be both aesthetically cheap and lacking in innovation. Comparisons can be made to Christof Loy’s award winning production for Theater an der Wien a few years back, which was both more attractive and more complexly disturbing. Mielitz’s neon framing and Atari-style video game graphics combine with bright blue, red or black garb (set and costume designs by Gottfried Pilz) which are 90s modern – though suiting Suffolk norms in absolutely no period imaginable – and are patently unoriginal.

Jonas Kaufmann (Peter Grimes)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper GmbH

Instead of exploring a deeper theme, such as latent homosexual desire (as does Loy) she offers an apprentice who is barely school aged, making Grimes no more than an abusive surrounded by townsfolk who spend most of their time on stage – and below it – drinking, gossiping and cavorting incessantly. It’s overplayed, flat and boring, and a cast like this certainly deserves better.

In conclusion, this Wiederaufnahme is a must for the music and the singing... but keeping your eyes closed for peak enjoyment is recommended.

***11