You played Mrs Sedley in the landmark production of Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh this summer…
I think it was my first experience of performing an opera outdoors…and let’s just say I was quite glad it wasn’t my first Peter Grimes! All sorts of things went through my mind before we started but the technical side of it was handled so well and the director Tim Albery carried his own vision right through all the technical challenges and the weather and brought it out the other side – that was an amazing achievement I think.
What about the sound of the sea?
It was hugely effective. You’d hear the ‘whooosh’ of the waves, and you’d hear Grimes’s footsteps on the shingle. I was quite surprised how little we heard the seagulls, I think they cleared off…maybe they felt a bit intimidated. But to have the sea behind us was phenomenal – and the actual sea that Britten lived next to and wrote Grimes’s Four Sea Interludes.
From Britten’s back yard to La Scala in Milan…how was it singing Mrs Sedley there and what did the Italians make of Peter Grimes?
The reaction was mixed. Inevitably you had certain more conservative elements of the audience who disappeared at the interval, but there was a core group – possibly younger – who seemed to be immensely enthusiastic. Richard’s [Jones] take on it was to bring it much more up to date, so the production was set in the 1980s in a northern English seaside town. He dealt with the issue of the workhouse boys by making them boys from a Borstal.
A director who thinks of everything…
Absolutely. I love working with him because it’s all worked-out yet it’s never stultifying. I like the way he says ‘don’t tell me the story because at this stage in the opera we don’t know what’s going to happen.’ He makes you go in and recreate something that’s just as much of a journey for you the performer as it is for the audience.
You’ll be in Glyndebourne On Tour’s production of The Rape of Lucretia this autumn. Written straight after Grimes but far less well known – what’s the feel of the opera?
I suppose it has this formality because it’s very much looking back two and a half thousand years. There’s a feeling of classicism and of reproducing, in some way, the Greek Tragedy with the male and female chorus. It’s quite ordered, you’ve got lots of balance. It’s generally just far more contained than a piece like Grimes or Albert Herring.
Is it a different experience touring with a show like that to appearing in a string of performances in one house?
Yes because you’ve got the different physical qualities of the theatres; you’ve got to think about if there’s wing space and about what’s going to be compromised and what isn’t. The set is relatively simple – yet also quite brilliant I think – but of course the proportions will change depending on where we are. It’s a long time since I’ve done the Glyndebourne Tour – probably since I was in the chorus actually and that’s a long time ago! – but you get to go to some lovely cities. Canterbury is beautiful and Plymouth is quite near home for me too.
Even more Britten coming up, as you’re singing Albert’s mum in Albert Herring at the Barbican in November. Has your opinion of the composer changed in this immersive centenary year?
It’s been very interesting to hear lots of different opinions over the years. People often say Britten can be awkward because it’s generally sung in English and that he didn’t always set texts very well. Working with Fiona [Shaw] on Lucretia has made me realise how beautiful the text is; I’ve come to think Britten’s choice of text is actually rather amazing and that he set those texts rather well. Overall the celebrations of 2013 have just reinforced the opinion I had already which is that Britten is a very great composer. I’ve done five or six productions of Grimes in the last few years and I find that it never palls. It’s incredible. I never find the music boring and I think it always stays with you.
In April 2014, Catherine makes her debut at The Metropolitan Opera in New York singing Adelaide in Strauss’s Arabella. Later seasons include her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival and a return to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.