The work by the British composer Benjamin Britten forms an essential part of contemporary opera production. Worldwide, he is even the most frequently staged author born in the 20th century. Peter Grimes, with a libretto by Montagu Slater based on a poem by George Crabbe, became the opera that set the course for Britten's next musical-dramatic works. And it is with the title Peter Grimes that the Brno National Theatre has opened the opera part of the 2021/2022 season. The story of a rough and tumble fisherman, whose two young apprentices die soon after each other and who as a result sails out to sea, where he sinks his boat and himself with it, had its Czechoslovak premiere in Brno in June 1947. Almost 75 years after, the story of a fishing village, resentment, cruelty and gossip is now coming to life again in the Janáček Theatre, directed by David Radok and with a musical score by Marko Ivanović. The title role was played by tenor Joachim Bäckström and the widowed teacher Ellen Orford, who found affection in Grimes, was portrayed by soprano Jana Šrejma Kačírková. This is not the first time that these two have met on stage together – it was with Mark Ivanović and David Radok that they had previously joined forces for the play Juliette / Lidský hlas (Juliette/The Human Voice). Jana Hrochová (Auntie), Andrea Široká (Niece), Tereza Kyzlinková (Niece), Svatopluk Sem (Balstrode), Jitka Sapara-Fischerová (Mrs. Nabob Sedley), Jan Št'áva (Swallow), Vít Nosek (Bob Boles), Petr Levíček (Horace Adams), David Nykl (Hobson), Jiří Hájek (Ned Keene) and Ivo Šiler (Dr. Crabbe) were also featured, along with the others.
As in other Britten operas, the central motif in Peter Grimes is loneliness and the concept of the individual against the crowd. The protagonist is an anti-hero who is vilified by most of the townspeople, but he himself, with his tough and maladjusted nature, does not even give people a reason to think otherwise. After all, the listener often has little reason to sympathise either – it is implied that Grimes physically punishes his young apprentices disproportionately, and the teacher Orford, who sides with Grimes, also receives a box. However, in his own words, even Benjamin Britten saw the title character of his opera as “a tortured idealist rather than the villain as Crabbe is”. Although a major part of the opera is devoted to Grimes’ unfortunate fate, the inhabitants of the small town are equally important, who as a whole and as individuals become at some points almost the centre point of the work. It should be added that the literary draft is even more devoted to the fate of the town’s residents.
Director David Radok has taken Britten’s opera realistically, but with a sombre poetry. The relatively minimalistic, in a way lyrical scene, dominated by the view of the open sea, became the main setting of the opera. The realistic, almost bleak conception emanated not only from the wind- and rain-beaten buildings (a hut and a pub), but also from the costumes (Zuzana Ježková), which were mostly dark raincoats or other work clothes. All the more poetic was the scene with the lonely Grimes, in which the dark waters were covered with thick – and brilliantly lit (Přemysl Janda)! – fog. On the other hand, the pleasantly mischievous face of the small town is most evident in the scene with the dancing and the live band on stage. In short, Radok has imprinted Grimes with a unique visual aspect that exquisitely portrays all the moods of the opera and its title character.
The musical staging by Marko Ivanović proved to be equally successful – the orchestra of the BNT’s Janáček Opera was full of colour, yet formed a homogeneous, rhythmically and intonationally solid whole. Praise should definitely go to the woodwind section, which made a great contribution to the sounds of the words of this piece of work. The solo entries were particularly good, especially the viola solo by Stanislav Vacek. The singing performances can also be described as above average and in some cases completely flawless. The baritone Svatopluk Sem presented himself with a playful as well as serious exhibition, shining especially in the pub scene, where he could give room for various expressions. The speech of Bob Boles, the preacher and chief instigator against Grimes, performed by Vít Nosek, was also juicily insidious and poisonous in the best sense of the word. Ivo Šiler also managed to give the character of Dr. Crabbe the necessary “swagger". However, the most attention was undoubtedly drawn to the excellent Jana Šrejma Kačírková as the teacher Orford and the fantastic Joachim Bäckström in the title role. The female singer’s delicate and sensitive soprano was the best “companion” to Joachim Bäckström’s sometimes harsh and sometimes tender expression. It is the complex and contradictory emotional life of the title character that deserves a singer who is not only able to penetrate the mind of the chosen character, but who also possesses a wide expressive palette with which to present this unfortunate soul to the audience. And Bäckström is undoubtedly this singer – his voice went from the most menacing levels to the most tender gentleness with complete naturalness. Moreover, he always supported these expressive means perfectly with appropriately used dynamics, which often immediately went from extreme to extreme, but still preserved maximum musicality. Praise should also be given to the excellent choir of the BNT’s Janáček Opera under the direction of Pavel Koňárek and Klára Složilová Roztočilová – even where the choristers were not directly on stage they managed to be perfectly connected with the orchestra and always intonationally and rhythmically precise. The choir was also unusually varied in expression and the pub song was something quite different from the church singing, flowing gently into the heated situation between the female teacher and the fisherman.
Brno-staged Peter Grimes presents an opera performance that is polished to absolute perfection in every aspect – whether it is sensitive direction, on-point costumes, amazing vocal performances by the soloists and the choir, or the perfect interplay of the orchestra. The first opera performance of the 2021/2022 season set the bar for quality very high indeed.
Benjamin Britten Author
Montagu Slater based on a poem by George Crabbe Libretto
Marko Ivanović Conductor
David Radok Director
David Radok Set design
Zuzana Ježková Costumes
Přemysl Janda Lighting design
Pavel Koňárek Choirmaster
Klára Složilová Roztočilová Choirmaster
Patricie Částková Dramaturgy
Joachim Bäckström as Peter Grimes
Jana Šrejma Kačírková as Ellen Orford
Jana Hrochová Auntie as Landlady at The Boar
Andrea Široká as Niece 1
Tereza Kyzlinková as Niece 2
Svatopluk Sem (Guest actor) as Balstrode
Jitka Sapara Fischerová (Guest actor) as Mrs. Nabob Sedley
Jan Šťáva as Swallow
Jiří Hájek (Guest actor) as Ned Keene
Vít Nosek (Guest actor) as Bob Boles
Petr Levíček as Rev. Horace Adams
David Nykl as Hobson
26–10–2021, 7 p.m., Janáček Theatre