I never thought of my own native English as a language opera could credibly be written and sung in as my schooling in opera mostly covered the “only before the twentieth century with the exception of Puccini because he’s just that good” period. After seeing the English National Opera’s ENO Screen production of Peter Grimes I can admit that English doesn’t sound terrible as a language for opera, even though it suffers from some unintelligibility as all languages do, especially in the chorus sections. I enjoy listening to music in languages I don’t understand because it effectively makes me oblivious to asinine lyrics (I’m a lyrics person); and opera libretti can be notoriously ham-fisted and expository, but that’s just a part of the art form.
Peter Grimes has been described as “the quintessentially British opera,” and indeed, it does share in common with The Beggar’s Opera a sense of the bleak bawdiness of working men’s and women’s lives of the era without the merest whiff of condemnation. A feature of this particular presentation was that the cameras were not only placed in front of the stage but also to the side and in the chorus, facing the audience. While this ruined the proscenium arch effect (there were several moments where I wanted to see a singer that was offscreen) it gave this member of the cheap seat crowd a good sense of the acting that makes a successful opera performance.
I won’t pretend that seeing Richard Margison perform Il Trovatore with a head cold makes me a critical authority, but Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes acted the role beautifully. There were no arias with long held notes and soaring acrobatics to show off his vocal chops, but this was a wise decision of Britten’s in characterizing the harried and later completely unhinged fisherman. Elza van den Heever as Grimes’ prospective fiancée Ellen is quite simply a phenomenon.
After the screening my father in law, husband and I went to an Argentinian steakhouse and threw around ideas for how Grimes could have survived his ordeal, all of which would have watered down the story considerably. Eventually I said to my father in law via my husband’s expert translation “the great and wise philosopher Bugs Bunny one said ‘Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?'” A born and bred East German whom I share perhaps ten words of English with, I still do not know if my father in law knows who Bugs Bunny is.