José Cura’s Peter Grimes in Bonn


Suppose that you were the artistic director of a medium-sized German opera company. A very famous Argentinian tenor, in the autumn of his career, has wanted for some years to sing the title role in Peter Grimes, and says that he is willing to come to your theatre to do just that, but would like also to direct and design the production. Would you agree to the proposition? Of course, you would, even though there is a serious risk that the venture would not succeed in all respects. So it proved to be in Bonn.

One can understand José Cura’s desire to sing the part. After all the Manricos and Otellos, his tenore robusto has acquired a plangent quality which is just right for the more poetic passages delivered by Britten’s anti-hero fisherman; he also has the Vickers-like power to declaim anguish and frustrated ambition. Nevertheless the characterisation remained unconvincing. It may have been natural for Cura to look for some goodness and sympathy in Grimes – at the beginning he bends over a dead apprentice in anguish and at the end cradles three of them in his arms – but this is never satisfactorily reconciled with the brutal episodes. Nor was his alienation from the villagers worked through clearly enough.

True there were one or two original, impressive moments in the production. For example, as Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces sing of the caring function of women, some of the fishermen’s wives turn their heads movingly, thereby distancing themselves from their aggressive husbands already in pursuit of Grimes. Then, in the last tableau, through the mist, he is seen to drag a boat containing the apprentices. But the production as a whole suffered from a lack of stagecraft skills. Movements were sometimes clumsy around the old-fashioned set. When, with the curtain down, the latter needed to be changed between Acts Three and Four, there was an awful pause, breaking the dramatic tension. And, in Act Two, Grimes’ dramatic appearance out of the storm was completely muffed.

There were some musical compensations. South African Johanni van Oostrum won all hearts for her portrayal of Ellen Orford, empathizing with Grimes’ fate through the purity of her soprano as it soared above the stave. There were good performances too from Mark Morouse as a bluff Balstrode, Christian Georg as a perky but hysterical Boles and Ceri Williams as a blowsy Auntie. Jacques Lacombe in the pit left mixed impressions. The second and third sea interludes were splendid, driven hard with sharp dissonances, but overall there was a lack of continuity and coherence in the orchestral contribution. Britten’s masterly score requires a sense of inevitability which was absent in this performance.