sun 18/03/2018

Peter Grimes, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Grimes, English National Opera

Peter Grimes, English National Opera

David Alden's revelatory staging of Britten's masterpiece makes a glorious return

The matchless Stuart Skelton living the title roleRobert Workman

“Mind that door.” With the hurricane howling outside it’s no wonder the locals gathered in Auntie’s pub are yelling... but there is no door. Instead, a stage-wide sheet of corrugated iron rears up to let in Stuart Skelton’s storm-tossed Peter Grimes. Enlarging naturalistic, close-up detail into full-blooded, expressionist drama is typical of this frankly electrifying revival of David Alden’s revelatory production of Britten’s masterpiece. 

The fusion of sound and stage action in the very first moment makes it immediately clear that this production is operatic in the best sense. With the houselights still up and before a note of music is heard, the threatening chorus is revealed at the back of the stage looming out of darkness, rumbling with discontent. Supported by the jaunty orchestral writing, the coroner in a makeshift court hastily assembled by the Borough townsfolk proceeds to interrogate Grimes about the death of his apprentice. Standing on top of the tables, Grimes appears as a stranded and awkward victim. Literally and metaphorically, he’s above everyone else, the image perfectly capturing why almost everyone hates him.

With the stakes already set unusually high, Alden’s production never lets up, the tension amplified by the extreme dynamic range Edward Gardner coaxes from his orchestra. His handling, for example, of the storm interlude isn’t just about impressively implacable brass playing, he elicits terror via vividly etched whiplash squeals of the high woodwind and strings. He pulls tempi around too, allowing Britten’s extraordinary orchestration to breathe – has the richness of the harp writing ever been so evident?

Impressive though such detailing is, it wouldn’t have such thrilling impact were not everything in service of such compellingly sung drama. Nothing has been taken for granted: every moment in the score and libretto has been freshly thought through and, crucially, every character, the women in particular.

Rebecca de Pont Davies in Peter Grimes, ENOIn her UK debut, Elza van den Heever’s beautifully forbearing Ellen Orford is all the more touching for the breadth of her vocal and dramatic range. She’s even granted a rare moment of happiness, tossing her hat delightedly in the air at the Sunday morning sunshine. Mrs Sedley, the troublemaker who revels in Grimes’ misfortunes, is generally played merely as a frumpy comic pillar of supposed rectitude. Felicity Palmer, on top fierce form, makes her every inch the self-serving, secret laudanum addict who is not above grabbing the apothecary Ned Keene (a gloriously self-satisfied Leigh Melrose) and kneeing him in the groin to get what she wants from him. 

Recognising that Britten’s writing for the two “nieces” is near identical, costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel dresses them identically almost throughout as worryingly overgrown schoolgirls. Their disturbingly dead-eyed performances – and everyone’s sexualised behaviour in the party in the penultimate scene – makes it clear that they are used by all the rankly hypocritical men.

Moments and scenes like that might sound like directorial imposition, yet everything in Alden’s stark, bold vision is rooted in the text, nowhere more so than in his brilliant re-imagining of Auntie. In Rebecca de Pont Davies’ magnetic, beady performance (pictured above), she’s one part pub landlady, one part brothel-keeper. Striding about in full-length fur, she dominates the stage and the town and acts as a way in for the audience. She stands uniquely apart, making money out of exploiting the town while being a scourge of its herd instinct.

That instinct is made particularly powerful by the handling of the first-rate chorus within Paul Steinberg’s sets. Beneath Adam Silverman’s startlingly intense lighting, angular walls of sea-beached Suffolk clapboard, driftwood and metal are cunningly repositioned to create a sequence of atmospheric but extraordinarily dynamic spaces. The opera’s most famous moment, as the town bays for blood screaming “Peter Grimes!”, is all the more shattering for being suddenly confined in a small space, an arresting image of wall-to-wall, flag-waving hatred.

That epic moment gives way to the wide-open pain of Peter’s final scene. Early on, Skelton serves notice that this Grimes is belligerent. Facing out the storm, his “I shall stay” isn’t the approximate cry marked in the score, it’s a thundering high roar of blind defiance.

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes, ENOCrucially, his lumbering Grimes (pictured left) cannot understand and mend his actions because he lacks the mental awareness. He's a pained and painful blunderer whose intense emotions and thoughts are unfinished and breathtakingly raw. That’s why he flinches at Ellen’s touch and why his inward, awestruck pianissimo singing of his vision of the night skies “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” lifts the hairs on the back of your neck. 

Having made no attempt to hide Grimes‘ bullying, his ultimate breakdown is all the more upsetting. The inevitability of his final collapse sets the seal on an audacious, masterly production that puts to death the ridiculous assumption that opera singers cannot act. Anyone remotely interested in opera, and especially anyone who thinks opera isn’t for them, should race to see this in the flesh. If that’s impossible, don’t despair: it’s being screened in cinemas on Feb 23. Unmissable.



Opera in cinemas, is this the future? I purchased my tickets in advance for the February 23 viewing at a cinema. I viewed the trailer and it looks spectacular. There will be some enhancements in viewing the production on screen. I understand that there will be a camera discreetly operated by a performer that will give you a unique perspective. Never thought of viewing opera in a cinema, but when you think about it, you will receive high definition viewing along with surround sound. All my experiences viewing operas in the past have been at a distance that required opera glasses which limits your field of vision. I'll be sure to review the entire performance after attending.

Well, Bob: opera in cinema is very much with us in the present and, if you're an expatriate opera-lover like me, living in a city with, unfortunately, a very poor range of live opera on offer. then it's a necessity, not a luxury! Here in Belgrade, Serbia, we have the Metropolitan Opera "live in HD" at a local cinema, and we get to as many performances as we can. At only 10 bucks a seat, it's surely worth it. However, we can't see here the ROH and now ENO shows in any cinema: we would have to go to neighbouring Croatia for that. My hope is that, is they are broadcasting it, they might also publish a DVD or two. Meanwhile, I get along by reading the excellent reviews on the Arts Desk!

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