Last night at Peter Grimes: a closing review

Last night at Peter Grimes: a closing review


norman lebrecht

February 09, 2022

From Hugh Kerr, editor of Edinburgh Music Review:

I attended the final performance of Peter Grimes in Vienna last night and would like to add a contrasting note to the long and colourful review in Slipped Disc the other day.

Let me begin with some caveats, this 26 year old production is somewhat minimalist and owes more to the psychoanalytic concerns of Vienna than a Suffolk fishing village! It’s true that Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t sound English, also Lise Davidson’s voice is occasionally too big for the part of Ellen Orford. The jolly scenes outside the pub tend to turn into an orgy, something I don’t think Britten intended.

Despite this I have to say that last night’s Grimes was musically the best I have heard in over 50 years of opera going and it was received by a roar of approval from a very full Vienna audience, no small feat for a “ difficult for Europeans” English opera.

Jonas Kaufmann doesn’t have an English accent but his interpretation of Grimes was vocally superb and his acting conveyed the mental anguish of Grimes. Yes at times Lise Davidsen blew everyone off the stage with that big voice, but what a voice ,surely the most powerful but beautiful soprano voice in the world today ,and her empathetic acting of Ellen Orford was perfect. Contrary to your other reviewers view, Bryn Terfel gave a very sound account of Balstrode and yes he hasn’t the voice he had 20 years ago but it was quite good enough and he got a warm reception from the audience.

The other parts were adequately covered and the chorus were very good, but the real stars of the evening were Simone Young conducting the musicians of the Vienna Philharmonic. I have never heard the fabulous music of Britten so electrically played as last night. Kaufmann and Davidsen got very warm responses at the curtain call but Simone Young and the musicians rightly got the biggest applause of all.

My first visit to the Vienna opera some 25 years ago was with a former Austrian minister of culture then a colleague in the European Parliament. I noted then how few women musicians there were in the orchestra. Well last night there were a few more women and I had invited my old colleague to attend the opera, she said they now had closed screening for recruitment and more women were being recruited. Whatever the numbers of women last night we both agreed they sounded superb.

Going to the opera in Vienna is still difficult. You no longer need to take a Covid test 2 days before the opera, but you do need your Covid Vaccination passport and you have to be fully masked throughout ,it’s not pleasant but for a performance like last night it’s worth it. Vienna is the busiest opera house in the world with over 300 performances a year. Despite the pandemic it’s managing to keep a full programme of operas going aided by generous state support and for that it deserves credit

For me this was my best live opera experience since I saw the last night of Fidelio at Covent Garden 2 years ago, just before lockdown. Come to think of it that also starred Jonas Kaufmann and Lise Davidsen , as one of Vienna’s psychiatrists Jung might say “ synchronistic”!

Hugh Kerr is the editor of Edinburgh Music Review.


  • guest says:

    This is just marginally less colorful than the first review, still full of “superb”, “fabulous”, “best”, “beautiful”, “most in the world today.” Once upon a time, reviews were reviews, now we get a collection of generic superlatives and adjectives. I am weary how many times I have seen the reviewer pitching his upcoming “review” on this site.

    • A.L. says:

      Well said.

    • Diane Valerie says:

      That’s as may be but at least some French critics can be trusted not to mince their words!

      • Leontamnos says:

        Thank you for pointing out this review. It was interesting to read as it represents the other extreme of the views on the production.

      • Ben says:

        This from Forum Opéra is simply bitchy beyond belief.

        • Diane Valerie says:

          @ Ben: I posted this review solely because of its marked contrast with the other reviews previously posted on this site. This critic clearly disliked the production intensely and has every right to say so and why; whether one agrees with him or not is irrelevant. If all that is required of a review is fulsome praise of each and everything, one might just as well ask the Intendants of the various opera houses or the Secretaries of the artists’ fan clubs to write them. “Bitchy” or not, this review is the only one I came across that had anything significant to say about the difficulties of singing in English …

    • EagleArts says:

      Well, as you were not there, how do you really know it’s not accurate? It’s a deeply moving and quite amazing opera, a great performance should elicit such praise!

  • Player says:

    Um: “Hugh Kerr… is a Scottish politician and a former lecturer in social policy at the Polytechnic of North London. He was elected a Labour Party Member of the European Parliament (MEP) in June 1994 to represent the euro-constituency of Essex West & Hertfordshire East until 1999.” He is now a member of the Alba Party.

    Terrific qualifications for reviewing Peter Grimes from Vienna! Yay!

    • Hugh Kerr says:

      Well Mr Player unlike you I use my real name and in addition to my political qualifications you mention so helpfully I have been attending operas for more than 50 years and have written and reviewed for Opera magazine the Scotsman the Herald the Guardian the Wee Review the Edinburgh Music Review and Slipped Disc!

      • A.L. says:

        Are we to gather you are a besotted fan of Kaufmann and Davidsen, too?

      • Player says:

        Lots of people have attended operas without believing it confers the kind of expertise needed to review. And the fact you have gulled those organs in to publishing your personal opinions about what you have attended, is neither here nor there. What are your qualifications, please? From what spring do your insights flow? Too many hours in the European Parliament? A desire to get away from Scotch Labour politicking is not enough, even if it be understandable.

        • Helen says:

          Pray tell us, I can hardly wait to hear, your qualifications for your horribly caustic post to Hugh Kerr.

          • guest says:

            @Helen, if one wouldn’t know you are an ardent Kaufmann admirer… This detail spoils the value of your comment, unfortunately. @Player’s post might be a little direct but I wouldn’t call it caustic myself, and even less *horribly* caustic; but perhaps you are as fond of superlatives as Mr. Kerr, just that your inclination runs toward superlatives with negative connotation, while his is decidedly for happy stereotypes. What’s so wrong in asking someone’s musical credentials, if that someone calls himself an opera critic, particularly after Mr Kerr’s advertising show on this site? Serious critics don’t need half a dozen sales pitches for one upcoming “review”. If all that it takes to call oneself musical critic is attending musical events for a few decades, I am sure we could boast of a few dozen critics on this site. And I don’t know about you, but I am wary myself of politicians’ publishing in newspapers, don’t tell me you believe in the fairy tale of press independence.

          • Player says:

            Player, dear lady, player! The clue is in the Word.

          • Baroness Millhaven says:

            You are Norman Lebrecht and I claim my five pounds

  • Paola Galeati (ignorantissima di lirica) says:

    Mi permetto di fare una domanda:coloro che contestano il recensore hanno assistito all’opera?P

    • Bonetti Micaela says:

      Grazie, Paola, la penso come Lei.

    • guest says:

      @ignorantissima di lirica A pity you did not ask sooner, the audio stream of the performance on 29th Jan was available on ORF Player for an entire week ( Was still there last week, pulled now. I don’t know how many people commenting here have attended the performance in the theater, but millions had the opportunity of listening to the audio stream.
      May I ask you a few questions in return? If your name is any indication about your knowledge / interest in opera, why do you want to know who attended? And why are you interested just in people who disagree with the reviewer? Have you decided for yourself that the reviewer is right? If so, based on what? Even if you were there, you don’t understand anything about opera, or so you say.

  • Bloom says:

    This WSO ”Peter Grimes”, hotly advertised here and elsewhere for mysterious reasons, sounded on the radio ( on the 29th of January) like a lot of noise for nothing. A big bluff.

  • wiener says:

    Terfel immer noch ein Gigant.