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This 1969 BBC production is about as close as we can get to a definitive version of Benjamin Britten痴 Peter Grimes
, one of the greatest 20th Century operas. The story of the individualistic fisherman hounded by his neighbors who believe he murdered his young apprentice packs tremendous emotional power. The compelling narrative is richly enhanced by its subtexts: the lone outsider versus the conformist mob; the dreamer of improbable dreams that lead to tragedy; the artist (dreamer) versus the Philistines, and the homosexual overtones of Grimes� abuse of his child apprentices. Britten is conductor of his work and tenor Peter Pears is Grimes, 25 years after he created the title role at the opera痴 premiere. Britten was a great conductor as his recordings of his own and others� music attests, and here he outdoes himself with a performance that captures both the brooding darkness of the work and its visceral power. Pears at first seems a bit old for the part and his throaty voice no match for the overwhelming Grimes of Jon Vickers in a later Covent Garden production with Colin Davis conducting. But if Pears hasn稚 the protean force of Vickers, he was there at the creation of the part, knows its every nuance and shading, and is totally convincing as an actor as well--proud, aloof, yet vulnerable. As the widow Ellen Orford, soprano Heather Harper is magnificent. Singing with tonal beauty and acting the role of the sensitive, morally sturdy woman who loves Grimes when all hate him, she is so convincing that when the out-of-control Grimes slaps her, you feel assaulted yourself. The supporting cast is excellent too, headed by baritone Bryon Drake as the dignified, sensible Balstrode, the retired sea captain. David Myerscough-Jones� production design, on a cramped, makeshift stage at Britten痴 Snape Maltings concert hall, with the London Symphony on an off-camera rear platform, works better than it should. The staging is by Joan Cross, who sang Ellen in the opera痴 premiere. Movements of the chorus and soloists are economical but realistic, the settings appropriate, the costumes wisely helping to set the action in the early 19th century. Best of all, the sea is an ever-present actor here. When we don稚 see it in the background it exerts its presence in the abundant visual references to nets, barrels, and other paraphernalia of a seaside fishing village. The wonderful Interludes Britten composed for the opera are illustrated with abstract images of shifting colors that mimic the movements of sea and clouds, as well as the orchestral colors being played--thus yellows dominate when the trumpets do, darker colors when the lower strings are in the ascendant. Brian Large痴 direction for TV is first-rate, with closeups that enhance the intimacy of the work. The end result is an unforgettable version of a work that leaves you emotionally drained and musically elevated. --Dan Davis
Peter Grimes is an all-regions color disc in 4:3 ratio. Sound options include LPCM monophonic and Enhanced Dolby mono. Sung in English, subtitles are available in English French, German and Spanish.