Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was first performed in London at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945, just months after Victory Day in Europe marked the end of WWII. While it took only two-and-a-half years to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, it would be another 75 years before Teatro Real, Madrid would unveil a Grimes staging of its own—a co-production with London’s Royal Opera House, Opéra national de Paris and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma that premiered on April 19th, 2021.
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest operas of the 20th century, the libretto for Peter Grimes was adapted by Montagu Slater from George Crabbe’s narrative poem, “Peter Grimes.” It tells the brutal and ultimately tragic story of a fisherman ostracized by the people of the seaside town in which he lives, touching on universal themes of individualism and innocence.
The opera forms part of a cycle of works by Benjamin Britten at Teatro Real. It was preceded in 2018 by Gloriana, also conducted by Ivor Bolton, and in 2017, Billy Budd, which was the theatre’s first-ever production by the composer, led by the same creative team as Peter Grimes: conductor Ivor Bolton, stage director Deborah Warner, and Canadian scenographer Michael Levine.
“I love Benjamin Britten, I think he is one of the best composers of all time,” said Teatro Real artistic director Joan Matabosch.
“But the idea to mount the opera was not just because I like him; it was to share with the public a part of the most important 20th-century repertoire, which did not come to Spain because of political reasons. There was a sort of isolation during Franco times – 40 years – a long period when new works, new creations, were difficult. Teatro Real has made a big effort, but there was still something missing with Britten. It was the moment for Peter Grimes to become a part of the taste, the patrimony, of the public in Madrid.”
However, mounting such a complex production, with its large chorus and full orchestra, presented significant challenges in the midst of a global pandemic, including navigating a travel ban from England to Spain, negotiating the realities of Brexit, and managing rehearsals with strict virus protocols. “To keep a theatre open in this moment is complicated,” Matabosch acknowledged. “It’s not impossible, but it’s very complicated.”
“It was really complicated,” confirmed Canadian set and costume designer, Michael Levine. “To be sitting here in the auditorium with it actually onstage, with people doing our first orchestral dress rehearsal – it’s an extraordinary thing.
“It’s definitely a contemporary [staging]. It’s not set in the period it was written for, it’s set now, in contemporary Britain and the political situation that goes with that. We wanted it to have its feet grounded in a modern world that people can relate to.”
As with his Teatro Real Billy Budd, the most noticeable aspect of Levine’s set design for Peter Grimes is its deceptively simple scenography. He explained that his inspiration came from a particular type of coast: “It’s really reflective of the English seaside towns that are very hardscrabble and quite poor. There’s a lot of empty shops and a lot of unemployment. We found that to be a kind of interesting environment, a ground for this piece to exist in. The sort of toughness of these towns.
“We were actually inspired by the beach, the beauty of the beach, the beauty of the sea and how this meets the quasi-urban of this town… It’s literally tarmac and then the sea. That was our main jumping off point, and in a way, everything comes out of that… things open up and form out of our landscape.”
While Levine acknowledged he has a very strong connection to nature and the Canadian wilderness (he goes on a canoe trip every summer in Algonquin Park), he was uncertain as to how much its landscape informed his design. “I do know that having that ability to go into nature, touch it, be a part of it, always of course informs who you are as a human being. I don’t know if it necessarily affects my sense of how I would approach this piece.
“It’s a very interesting juxtaposition in Peter Grimes because you have the Borough, which is this sort of small-minded little town, and then you have, of course, the vastness of the beautiful sea, which comes through in the orchestral music. You have the balance of these two things…We’ve tried to make those two things clash.”
Even before Covid came onto the world stage, the set design for Peter Grimes already posed several technical challenges. “It’s complicated to begin with, but then becomes more complicated when it is for four different theatres… for example, for the Paris Opera, we’re doing it in the Garnier. It’s a rake stage. Here it’s a flat stage, so, what we had to do was build the rake stage underneath our stage.
“Each theatre has a different kind of repertoire of how they do things… so we kept having to rework it. And every time we reworked it, the design would kind of disintegrate a little… I had to keep on redesigning it and redesigning it.”
Then, in early 2020, just as the final designs were being approved, the pandemic hit: “I had to shut down my studio. Spain completely shut down. I finished the design on my own.”
As the first lockdowns ended, and with Peter Grimes still set to open in the spring of 2021, Levine was faced with the complexity and new challenges of working during a pandemic.
“Basic things you would normally do, which are really simple, like looking at samples, you couldn’t do. Doing that through video conference is not possible… Even getting into Spain, they had to make me a semi-resident of Spain for a short period, because they weren’t allowing anybody but Spanish citizens, especially from the UK, because the numbers were so high at that point.”
And for the final scenography? “I didn’t design it for the pandemic. I designed it for everyone to be crammed together. There are a lot of people on stage, and you have to give them a lot of breathing room. That’s one of the big challenges of Peter Grimes. You have a pub scene with 70 people. You can put 70 people in a ballroom but not in a pub.”
While he acknowledged there have been immense challenges to preparing for and mounting this production, Levine was astounded that it was taking place at all.
“The fact that the Teatro Real is doing it is amazing. It’s amazing that they’re doing it, but at a certain level, it’s quite scary sometimes.”
Teatro Real’s Peter Grimes will be performed in front of a live audience until May 10th, 2021. An in-depth feature on Teatro Real’s efforts to remain open during the pandemic will be published in the fall issue of Opera Canada.