Jonas Kaufmann as Peter Grimes: First review

Jonas Kaufmann as Peter Grimes: First review


norman lebrecht

January 27, 2022 has the first review, by Larry L. Lash, of Britten’s luxury-cast opera in Vienna, with Kaufmann in a role he has long coveted.

Read below.

by Larry L. Lash



By Larry L. Lash

27 January 2022

VIENNA — As I approached Wiener Staatsoper last night, the relatively new neon bars set into the vast windows overlooking the Ringstraße were flashing in blue:






I M E S !

Kaufmann started out strong in the opening trial scene with surprisingly terrific English.  Why was I surprised?  What can this man not do?  (I once saw this opera in Graz with a superb English-singing ensemble save for its Grimes, heldentenor Reiner Goldberg, who sang not one intelligible word). Kaufmann’s English actually improved over the course of the evening.  He never over-enunciated, nor made any noticeable mistakes; every word was clearly pronounced and understood.  He sounded quite at home with it all.

I was ready to put this down as a first performance that will grow in time (and it still can; now that he knows the words, he can colour them with greater depth), but the production, created by Christine Mielitz in 1996 for Neil Shicoff, really prevents him from developing any kind of relationship with other characters. That applies to the entire cast: they are all cartoons except for Grimes and Ellen (Lise Davidsen); even Balstrode (Bryn Terfel) is painted as a one-dimensional personification of gruffness.

Vocally, Kaufmann began to establish firm footing and exquisite breath control with “Now the great Bear and Pleiades”, opening with his unique baritonal pianissimo (enough to cause tingles down my spine).  An introspective and socially-inept character began to emerge with this aria in Act I scene ii, consisting mainly of two perfectly-calibrated, slowly-descending scales.

His first truly jolting, clarion moment was the monologue in Act II scene ii, as Grimes prepares to go to sea with his new apprentice.  Deprived of human contact, this man is nuts and lives in his head (especially since there is literally no production – bare stage, no sets, no props except for a rowboat, only idiotic highway lane reflective light strips).

But nothing could have prepared me for the a cappella Act III scene ii “mad scene”.

Kaufmann began quietly sobbing as he hauntingly recalled the deaths of his apprentices (“The first one died, just died …”).  My eyes were so clouded by tears I could barely see the stage.  This was also the really only chance Kaufmann had to display his physical connection with his scruffy, hunched-over, sometimes hyperactive character, singing and whispering directly to the body, even when Ellen and Baslstrode attempt to communicate with him.  Grimes has totally disappeared into his own reality.

A Grimes of this magnitude has the potential to become perfection, raising memories of Vickers and dear Philip Langridge. Absolute perfection is attained by condutor Simone Young, who received the loudest ovations of the night from a near-capacity house.  This score is under her skin and never sounded more thrilling and alive. The Staatsopernorchester was its best – well, the best it can be with a complex score which it rarely performs (is there anything like it outside of other Britten operas?).  Excelling in the tiniest details, the entire score was as thoroughly compelling as the famous “Sea Interludes”.

The excellent chorus was relegated mostly to raised platforms – or a sunken pit – far upstage, so it had no chance of interacting with the townsfolk.  The only negative aspects were some blurry diction and one big goof when falling afoul of Young’s beat (which, from where they were standing, they probably couldn’t see).

Lise Davidsen was a strong-willed Ellen, too often played as a mousey schoolmarm. The size and metallic sound of her voice are damned impressive (think of prime Astrid Varnay).  But the size … yeah, about that.  I wanted to shake her and tell her that even Elektra has some soft passages.  Not to be heard here.  97% of her singing was almost a match for the LOUDEST thing I have ever heard: a Dame Gwyneth Jones Turandot about 30 years ago which may have caused permanent ear damage.

When Davidsen attempted to sing piano, the voice clouded over and got a bit raspy.  Is she “singing over a cold” or is it always this way?  She gave a sufficiently decent characterisation – if rather bland – but was another victim of the production.

Terfel sounded a ghost of his former self.  Best in passages of one-syllable words all sung on the same note, a nasty wobble overmatched any effort to sing more-complex vocal lines.  The sound – more shouting than singing – was hollow.  His English screamed, “Hey, all you blokes: I’m BRITISH”!  He particularly loved any words which end with the letter T.  Not much of a character outside of a portly presence, this Balstrode was certainly no friend of Grimes.

The townspeople had no particular standouts except for the Ned Keene (Martin Häßler), always a good tryout for a young baritone on his way to Billy Budd. Auntie (Noa Beinart) and her two “Nieces” (Ileana Tonca and Aurora Marthens) blended gorgeously with Ellen in their Act II scene i quartet.  The Reverend Horace Adams (Carlos Osuna) offered endearing, lyrical support. Happy stereotypes were Swallow (Wolfgang Bankl), Bob Boles (Thomas Ebenstein), and Hobson (Erik Van Heyningen) who was challenged by his drum-playing which leads the chorus to Grimes’ hut (lots of marching in place as the green highway markings speed by), finding it difficult to delineate clear beats.

Most bizarre was the Mrs Sedley of Stephanie Houtzeel, whose past performances include a superb Octavian, a sultry Jenny in “Mahagonny”, and an overwrought Komponist in “Ariadne auf Naxos”.  A question remains as to why she delivered most of her part in Sprechstimme. Houtzeel still has a lovely, warm mezzo.  She managed a few lines that sounded fine, but she was a major victim of the production.

Why does this production even exist in 2022?  It has now been around for 49 performances over 26 years (in that time-window the Met has given it only 11 times).  It would by far be better for the singers, chorus, conductor, and audience to present it in concert form. Earlier this season, Theater an der Wien revived it bare-bones production by Christof Loy – Mr I-can-stage-any-opera-in-a-big-empty-room-with-large-large-doors – which seems a masterwork compared to this insulting drivel.

How Christine Mielitz had an international career is beyond me (After this 1996 debut production at Staatsoper she was invited back for Parsifal (stage debut of Thomas Quasthoff) and Der fliegende Holländer in the same season!  Both were/are appalling; the Parsifal has been scrapped.) The stage is bare.  Literally.  Elevators are used to pop-up – or drop-down – certain sections of the stage, which did things like relegate the chorus for the Sunday church scene to far upstage and slightly below stage level. (Why, for Christ’s sake, could they not just sing from offstage, as written?). Suddenly neon lights define the proscenium around the black void.  No discernable reason – maybe to add some colour to the chorus’ featureless black costumes?

Then strips of light start to appear on the stage floor, suggestive of the yellow lines which divide lanes on a highway.  Then they turned green and began moving to a distant point, leaving no doubt that we’re on the road to nowhere. In the middle, far above the stage, hangs a lighted disc.  Blue, white, red – the moon, the sun?  Then it morphs into a clock-face.  As with most of the inventions of this production, it is utterly meaningless and rather distracting.


The chorus is kept mostly upstage and given no chance to interact with the townspeople.  Even when we first see the townspeople they are sitting in a single row of chairs, facing the back of the next person, heads buried in newspapers.  There is zero chance for interaction and character development. They are cartoons.  Men are sexually-starved buffoons.  Women are tarts.  Mrs Sedley may be a lesbian, in monochrome dove-grey pants suit, long scarf, pert bowler, and masculine strut.  This is the most vivid costume in the show and it deepens the question: when is this supposedly taking place?  My guess would be the late 1920s.  Dancing the Twist and the jazzy snapping of fingers to “Old Joe has gone fishing” only confused thing even more.  At times I felt embarrassed for the cast.

Perhaps the most disturbing and needless gimmick is the use of prepubescent boys’ bodies.  When the opera opens at the inquest for William Spode, Grimes’ late apprentice, his body lies centre stage.  Grimes takes the body with him at the end of the scene.  When John-with-no-surname, Spode’s successor, is delivered, Grimes grabs him, takes him to his hut and beats him.  Grimes is oddly not even in the room when John falls to his death (a stuffed body doll is clumsily tossed from the high ladder which the poor kid has to climb wearing a safety harness).  Grimes’ “mad scene” is sung mostly to the dead boy, and when Balstrode yells at him to take the ship out to sea and sink her, Grimes has already departed with the corpse over one shoulder.

Grimes, obviously descending from extremely troubled and socially inept to totally insane, doesn’t hear a word sung by Ellen or Balstrode: he just hovers over and hugs John’s body.  Is paedophilia and/or necrophilia being suggested?  It certainly doesn’t help anyone sympathise with Grimes.  Performed entirely in this black void, there is no sympathy to be found anywhere, except perhaps for Britten.


Performances at Wiener Staatsoper continue through 08 February 2022.


  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Well Terfel is Welsh actually and his first language is Welsh which if you are Welsh you can tell when you hear him speaking in English, it’s not just an accent, it’s another language.

    • Maria says:

      Yeah, Welsh, but Wales is part of the UK and British, and Bryn speaks English better tgan I do, and as a bilingual speaker, not English as a second language or a foreigner. Irish and Scots also have their own Gaelic language. Accents, yes, as Yorkshire, London and Merseyside, some of which have dialects too, but not an excuse to play the Welsh card for his English or lack of it.

      • Nik says:

        Indeed. English is the most widely spoken language in Wales. Some (but not all) Welsh people are also fluent in Welsh. But there is no such thing as a Welsh monoglot. Especially since the Welsh language taught and spoken today is the result of a resurrection, having all but died out at one stage.

        • Nicholas Ennos says:

          Welsh never died out, it has always been a living language, they just added some words for modern technology.

  • John Liarson says:

    Will there now be more frequent performances of Peter Grimes throughout Europe? After all it is the great Brexit opera with irresponsibility, ignorance and intolerance in abundance.

    • David G says:

      It will be performed at La Fenice in late-July. I have tickets, although they were part of a tour.

    • gareth says:

      …not to mention the problems with fishing

    • Maria says:

      Go back in your box unless this is your British sense of dry humour with a U!!! Nothing to do with Brexit, more child abuse which we have had in this world, and in the whole of the UK, not just England, for hundred of of years.

  • Bloom says:

    The La Scala ”Peter Grimes” from 2012 was the mightiest and the most emotional ever. Richard Jones -director, Robin Ticciati -conductor, John Graham-Hall as Grimes and Susan Gritton as Ellen. None of them is a ”star” , of course.

  • RW2013 says:

    Love the description of Loy’s Regie style.
    Perfectly true, but he does it with such artistry.

  • V. Lind says:

    Near-capacity crowd? Looks as if the pleas worked. Sounds as if they deserved to, at least for Kaufman — though Lash lives in a world in which Kaufman can do no wrong.

    I look forward to the second review.

  • Bloom says:

    Mr.Lebrecht is personally promoting this “review” on Jonas Kaufman by Laura Fontana page, a sort of JK groupie paradise. LOL.

  • Nicholas Ennos says:

    When will we be given the chance to hear singers in the opera house again who sing with correct technique?

  • Bloom says:

    As a fresh member of the Kaufmann devotees community on FB, Mr.Lebrecht is expected to keep on courting the groupie population . It s always better on the other side of iserious journalism , isn’t it?

    • Helen says:

      I don’t know who you are. Hiding behind a daft name. But you are a blooming nuisance, and very full of your own importance. Your condemnations of Herr Kaufmann are becoming tedious!

      • Guest says:

        @Helen Not everyone can hide behind a name reminiscent of Helen of Troy like yourself. Bloom might be his or her family name, for all you know, or should care. I have noticed a pattern with inveterate fans (dare I call them groupies?) – when someone criticizes the object of their affection – which Bloom didn’t in this comment – , this type of fan always resorts to name calling. It’s always personal attack with them, never factual argumentation. Have you tried the press, Helen, or are you happy with the fan mail published here? The press doesn’t share Mr. Lash’s enthusiasm. I don’t dare to ask if you have actually attended the performance yourself… nor do I dare to ask if you actually understand anything about operatic voice production.

        • Helen says:

          It has nothing to do with being a “groupie” as you call it. There are a number of regular contributors to this blog, Bloom being one of them that are always saying derogatory things about Kaufmann. As I said it I’d pathetic and tedious and not of any value really. I was sceptic let of JK singing this role, and of course I have not heard it, but neither I suspect has anyone else who has contributed to this blog. With regards to my qualification to speak about opera. Well, I expect I have as much right as anybody to say my piece. What I dislike though, is the constant Kaufmann bashing that goes on here. All of these singers, whoever they are, are working hard at their jobs and are doing the best they can for our enjoyment. That they are criticised and sometimes vilified is crass and unkind. By the way, my name is Helen, but not of Troy!

          • guest says:

            @Helen. I can’t see anything derogatory in Bloom’s comment above. If anything, he is making fun of Mr. Lebrecht but not of Kaufmann. If he wrote derogatory comments about Kaufmann in other posts, you should take him to task there, not here. It also depends on your definition of “derogatory”, inveterate fans seem to consider everything that isn’t uninhibited praise, is automatically “derogatory”. Sometimes, Helen, critique is critique; neither vilification nor flattery is critique, in my opinion. I noticed you are not incensed with Mr. Lash’s piece. Does it read like critique to you? It reads like ridiculous flattery to me.

            Yes, you have as much right as anybody to speak about opera, but the point is, you are not speaking about opera, you are speaking about Bloom. You may assume singers are working hard at their jobs (though you don’t really now), but you seem to belong to the group who confuses the imagined effort with results. Shouldn’t we be opinionated about results? Some people achieve results with more effort, others with less. You mention “our enjoyment”. MY enjoyment is dependent on results, not on effort.

            Regarding Bloom’s name, my point was it may be indeed his name, as Helen is yours (you say), but for reasons best known to yourself, you seem to consider his or hers to be “daft.” Isn’t this gratuitous name calling, Helen?

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    An interesting casting for this great british opera. According to the photo, Bryn Terfel looks as if he’s just left a Committee meeting of his local Rugby club and Kaufmann looks far too well-dressed – complete with a collar and tie – for a hard working sea dog a-battling with the elements on a daily basis. As for portrayals of Peter Grimes, I will never tire of Philip Langridge or Jon Vickers, but nobody will ever match Peter Pears in this role. He was the original and is still the best.

  • guest says:

    Once upon a time reviews were reviews… Now they are fan mail. I stopped reading after “Why was I surprised? What can this man not do?”

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Grimes was the first opera I went to as a teenager. I chose it based purely upon a review in the S.F. Chronicle. Sir Gerant Evans was Peter Grimes. It’s still one of my top favorite operas, and I would love to see it live again someday. People in good-old Wien, enjoy it while you can.

  • poyu says:

    Just saw Peter Grimes in ROH London last night, a much better production and arguably more even cast. Another success on a series of Britten operas.