The unveiling of this very British staging of Britten's Peter Grimes took the Milanese opera going public and critics by storm, and thankfully it has been preserved on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Stephan Lissner, artistic director of La Scala, has revitalised the company since his arrival in 2005, not only by broadening the repertoire but by inviting an energising clutch of stage directors who have breathed new life into what was once a stuffy and backward-looking organisation.
Entrusting Britten's masterpiece to maverick director Richard Jones, and designer Stewart Laing, was never going to result in a cosy recreation of a 19th Century fishing town in East Anglia, and given that the opera hadn't been seen in Milan since the ‘80s, this was a calculated risk, but one that has paid off handsomely.
Jones updates the action to the ‘80s, successfully creating a society that is at turns downtrodden, suspicious and need in of a scapegoat on whom it can vent its pent up frustration. Stewart Laing's designs evoke the desperation of the times, the multiple changes of location are deftly handled so that the scenes in the courtroom, and Grimes' hut have the necessary sense of claustrophobia whilst the outdoor scenes have the necessary room to breathe.
The Chorus, such a vital protagonist in this opera, is treated very much like a Greek chorus – slightly distanced from the action throughout - their positioning in the pub scene seems deliberately Brechtian in its alienation from the principles and action, yet the Chorus of La Scala sings superbly, getting all their words across, and making it sound as though they sing this kind of repertoire every day of their lives, which of course they don't.
Similarly in the pit Robin Ticciati whips the Orchestra of La Scala into a frenzy, and they reward him with impeccable playing that is alive to every nuance and colour of the score.
A predominantly Anglophone cast is exemplary. Susan Gritton portrays Ellen not as a simpering teacher but as a woman who's as hard as nails and she sings thrillingly throughout. John Graham-Hall's gum-chewing, twitching Grimes at times sounds overparted, but his mental and physical demise are brilliantly etched. Christopher Purves is a towering Balstrode whilst Felicity Palmer makes an engaging Auntie (she is usually cast as Mrs Sedley), and Catherine Wyn-Rogers a batty if younger than usual Mrs Sedley. The supporting cast is without fault, with special mention going to Daniel Okulitch who manages to make the usually pompous Swallow both virile and sexy.
Not everyone is going to buy into Jones' vision of the piece, and he gives the ending a brilliant if disturbing twist, which I won't spoil, but for me his staging never compromises the opera. I found it illuminating, engrossing and this version would be my first choice to own on DVD or Blu-Ray.
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