The sea, the sky, the wind, the storms that are so frequently depicted in the music of Benjamin Britten are brilliantly illuminated in the new DVD of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, a collaboration between Aldeburgh Music, film director Margaret Williams, and stage director Tim Albery.

On a fantastical set (a stunning design by Leslie Travers) depicting storm-tossed boats and piers placed on the beach pebbles near the water’s edge, the performance plays out in the natural elements with the audience on the beach as well.  The sea and sky are the backdrops, and this performance finds the heart and guts of Britten’s work with excellent staging and performances that get deeply into the minds and souls of Britten’s troubled Borough.  

The performance is set just post-war in 1945 (the year that the opera was first performed) and begins with film of an airplane doing rolls, witnessed by the citizenry of the Borough.  The setting, filled with boats splayed at odd angles and piers abutting one another, seems to reflect the turmoil in the mind of the title character.  Lucy Carter’s moody, stark lighting adds to the sense of impending danger.  Film director Williams is masterful in using camera angles that are slightly off, occasionally reminiscent of expressionistic films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; she uses the sea (always an extra character in Britten’s work) and its relentless waves in the opera’s Interludes.  The effect is magical.

Tenor Alan Oke, already known for examining the outer edges of opera characters, here gives a performance that is simply definitive.  His haunting tenor is used to great effect in examining every aspect of Grimes’ troubling personality.  This is a Grimes who acts primarily out of fear—fear of failure, of social interaction, of poverty, of loneliness.  One can palpably feel the longing for peace in his every vocal utterance.

Standing on top of a capsized boat, Oke sings “Now the great Bear and Pleiades” with great beauty and emotional power; and while it is a highlight of the opera, his duets with the sensitive Ellen Orford of Giselle Allen are equally poignant.  In Oke’s performance, there is not a single misstep or false moment.  I will return to this DVD again and again.

Stage director Albery has assembled a first rate ensemble to support Oke.  Ms. Allen’s Ellen Orford is a bit strained in the higher reaches of the role, but she exudes warmth and concern in defending Grimes.  Her scene with the new apprentice brings chills when she finds the boy bruised and sings “It…has…begun.”  David Kempster is a solid, calming presence as Balstrode.  Gaynor Keeble is appropriately sassy as Auntie (as are her “nieces”, Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford), and Catherine Wyn-Rogers is a delightfully nosy Mrs. Sedley.

The entire cast works together seamlessly; we can honestly believe these are citizens of the same town, they fight, they love, they carouse, they give comfort, and (shades of The Lottery) they can form a vicious bullying group when they turn on an outsider like Grimes.

The work by conductor Steuart Bedford and the Britten-Pears Orchestra is particularly remarkable since the orchestral music was recorded during a concert version and played back on the beach, with Bedford conducting the singers and recording in real time.  The communication between singers and conductor was nothing short of amazing, Bedford conducting from a “pit” dug into the pebbles of the beach.

The storm scenes in Peter Grimes were remarkably effective—in the film, the gathering black clouds were vividly real.  Time-stop-and sped-up sky movements increased the sense of claustrophobia as the characters gathered to ride out the storm.  Parts of the film were shot in periods of high wind on the beach, flapping Travers’ costumes and adding a realistic nod to Britten’s vivid musical depiction of the elements.

The only discordant note in the production was the need to use Broadway-style microphones across the faces of the performers.  Understandable of course, but occasionally intrusive.

This film is a major achievement in the filming of opera.  This reviewer felt immersed in the world of Britten’s music; I expect the audience felt like extra citizens of the Borough.  And, if one can have a star-making performance at age 59, Alan Oke is having it.  I want to hear much more from this riveting singing actor.