Theater an der Wien has had many excellent productions in 2015, but Christof Loy's realization of Britten’s dark masterpiece ranks as one of the best. Using minimal sets and props (Johannes Leiacker), conceptual costuming (Judith Weihrauch) and some devastatingly brilliant choreography (Thomas Wilhelm), Loy gives a decisive reading of a complex tale, aided in no small part by excellent musicianship and artistry.

Rosalind Plowright (Mrs Sedley), Joseph Kaiser, Frederikke Kampmann, Kiandra Howarth (Nieces) © Monika Ritterhaus
Rosalind Plowright (Mrs Sedley), Joseph Kaiser, Frederikke Kampmann, Kiandra Howarth (Nieces)
© Monika Ritterhaus

There are many questions that Britten leaves to the music in his tale based on a libretto written by Montagu Slater (based on the story by George Crabbe) but shaped by both himself and Peter Pears. Grimes is a complex character, and it is unclear from the libretto alone whether or not he is actually responsible for the deaths of his apprentices. Moreover, the relationship between Grimes and his apprentice John (a mute role), is left open to interpretation as are the characters of retired sea-captain Balstrode and schoolmistress Ellen Orford. Loy is not shy about the readings he gives, particularly with regards to John, here danced and interpreted brilliantly by Gieorgij Puchalski. Without ruining the show for anyone still thinking of taking it in, John in this production is definitely sexually aware, and his scenes with both Balstrode and Grimes are heartbreaking, gripping and more than a little steamy.

Ellen, for her part is played by the remarkable Agneta Eichenholz. Clad in unfrilly menswear, she is androgynous in presentation, and thereby set apart from the townsfolk as is Grimes himself, who wears beige and white in contrast to the blue and grey tones prevalent in the townsfolk. Eichenholz’s edgy, nearly Baroque-like timbre is not the prettiest sound I’ve ever heard, but suits her character to a tee. Moreover, she possesses excellent technique and her edgy realization of the embroidery aria is both unusual and devastating.

Gieorgij Puchalski (John) and Agneta Eichenholz (Ellen) © Monika Rittershaus
Gieorgij Puchalski (John) and Agneta Eichenholz (Ellen)
© Monika Rittershaus

Grimes is played Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser whose addition to the cast was announced only in early December. Though I personally would have preferred a stronger vocal sound in the title role, Kaiser’s effort to portray the softer side of the violent yet pitiable outcast should be roundly applauded. The rest of the leading team was very strongly cast, in particular Andrew Foster-Williams (Balstrode), Stefan Cerny (Swallow) and young ensemble member Tobias Greenhalgh (Ned Keene) standing out. Kiandra Howarth and Frederikke Kampmann were the buxom, pink-taffeta-clad versions of the spooky twins from The Shining, dominating scenes visually and always holding hands (and doing some beautiful singing all the while), and Hanna Schwarz (Auntie), Rosalind Plowright (Mrs Sedley) and Erik Årman (Reverend Horace Adams) were striking characters both vocally and dramatically as the Madame of the village and the meddling gossip you love to hate, and the lecherous passer of judgement, respectively.

Gieorgij Puchalski (John) and Joseph Kaiser (Grimes) © Monika Rittershaus
Gieorgij Puchalski (John) and Joseph Kaiser (Grimes)
© Monika Rittershaus

The Vienna RSO sounded about as excellent as I have ever heard them under the extremely capable baton of Cornelius Meister, with whom I could not have been more impressed. This is not an easy score to conduct, and the numerous instrumental interludes are as key to the dramatic arc as any sung texts. These instrumental interludes, coupled with the meticulous staging – sometimes the extras physically depicting the crashing waves and wind outside, sometimes creating their own world of action and intrigue – absolutely flew by. The chorus and smaller solos were performed meticulously by the Arnold Schoenberg Chor who seem to be perennially brilliant.

A bed hovers precariously at the front of a slanted stage, half into the orchestra pit. A number of chairs, and umbrella, a sofa or two and a door. Nothing else is required to tell a complete, complex tale of repression and societal injustice.

Bravo to the entire cast and crew – this production is one for the books! Though certainly not the most heartwarming of tales this Christmas season, this is a production one shouldn’t miss.