It’s remarkable that Gerald Finley is still sane. Since the beginning of this year, the Canadian-born baritone has weathered a maelstrom of twentieth-century angst, obsession and neurosis.
First there was Die Tote Stadt, then Dr Atomic and now he is playing Captain Balstrode in David Alden’s new Peter Grimes at ENO.
So far Finley has taken these challenges in his stride, and when we speak, shortly before the opening night, he talks enthusiastically about this latest project. Grimes, above the other two operas, has been unique in offering him a role debut, and the opportunity to help create a new staging from scratch, and it has clearly held great appeal. “New productions take between five and seven weeks and it’s a luxury to have the time to get into the spirit of it,” he says, “I’ve never worked with David Alden before, although I’ve seen a number of his productions, so I knew we were in for his treatment, and that was exciting.”
Finley began singing as a young boy in Ottawa and, like many people trained in the chorister tradition, Benjamin Britten’s music has always been important to him. In the past he has played operatic roles, including the English Clerk in Death in Venice, Sid in Albert Herring and Owen Wingrave all three at Glyndebourne. “Britten is generally pretty lyrical, there’s always a sense of melody, and a response to the words and I enjoy that element of his compositional technique,” he explains. “It’s a benefit that it’s sung in English but that’s both a relief and a challenge, because on the one hand you understand exactly what you’re saying but the poetry can still be elusive.”
When Peter Grimes premiered at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945, it launched Britten’s name worldwide, and the opera remains one of his most popular and most troublesome works. Based on George Crabbe’s 1810 poem ‘The Borough’, Montagu Slater’s libretto studies the intense dynamics of a fishing community on the Suffolk coast. The moral compass spins throughout the narrative and Peter Grimes himself is one of Britten’s most complex and ambiguous characters. Finley is clear, however, about the stance that Alden and the rest of the creative team have decided to take.
“This production doesn’t shy away from looking at the dark side of people and what happens in mob situations,” he explains, “we’ve decided that only Grimes has a clear view about what’s going on, and that everyone else is slightly grotesque, so from an audience point of view I think it will be a little confrontational.” But it’s an approach that he thinks is entirely justified. “There are enough productions around that see Grimes as a tormentor and a brutal man, and while there are elements of brutality here, in the end he’s presented as a visionary.”
Captain Balstrode is himself difficult to define, a character at once a removed observer and an active participant in the drama: while he shows kindness to the ostracised Grimes early on, he ultimately persuades him to take his life. “I’ve always wrestled with Balstrode’s involvement and complicity at the end, why his only solution is to tell Grimes to take his boat out to sea,” Finley admits. “David Alden is always out for a bit of mystery, but it will be absolutely clear that my character has a history, and that every character in this opera has a story that we all wonder about.
Finley is especially interested in the influences behind the composition of Grimes Britten’s pacifism, self-imposed exile and his return to his natural roots and its relation to the rest of his oeuvre. “The thing that still astounds me is that Albert Herring follows so soon after Peter Grimes. It’s almost as if he back-peddled in some way, he’s not quite apologising, but for me it’s as if he wanted to show that he could write a comic opera after this desperately intense shattering piece.”
After training at the Royal College of Music and King’s College, Cambridge, Finley was invited to take part in a production of Handel’s Rodelinda at Snape Maltings in the mid-eighties. Since then he has maintained strong links with the Aldeburgh Festival, returning on a number of occasions to sing in concerts and recitals, and this spring he had the opportunity to revisit the area and reconsider its connection with Grimes. “I find the whole environment very stimulating,” he enthuses, “the immense sky and the very low horizon, the sound of the sea and the shingle, the hazethe connection of natural force in Suffolk is very inspiring.”
Once Peter Grimes is over, Finley will turn his attention to his other great love: recital work. Next month he is performing at the Wigmore Hall with his long-term collaborator, Julius Drake, and they release a new recording of Ravel songs. He describes the pleasure he gets from communicating with the audience in such an intimate way, as well as the vocal benefits of the discipline. “It cleans the mind, it keeps the voice fresh and it allows me to be my own director, producer and performer.”
When I ask about new roles, Finley expresses a desire to explore “darker repertoire”, suggesting a move towards Verdi and Wagner, and is looking forward to singing his first Iago in a concert version of Otello with Colin Davis and the LSO this Autumn. Already he is celebrated for his versatility, having explored a wide range of composers, from Purcell to Mark-Anthony Turnage, but his interest in new repertoire clearly remains undimmed.