sun 18/08/2019

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera

This revival makes a vivid visual statement but of what is unclear

The Borough raise their standard aloft in pursuit of Peter GrimesClive Barda

It’s the oldest coup de théâtre in the postmodernist playbook – the curtain rises to reveal an audience staring back at us – but still, in the opening seconds of Willy Decker’s Peter Grimes, one of the most effective. Our theatrical doubles here are sinister creatures indeed, massed rows of sombre Victorians whose brutal Christianity is no less severe than the angles of John Macfarlane’s set. As gazes meet across the courtroom in that moment we confront ourselves, discover ourselves in the folk of the Borough, implicated absolutely in their tragedy.

 Returning for its first Covent Garden revival (directed by François de Carpentries), Willy Decker’s Peter Grimes has lost none of its visual aplomb. Starkly monumental, his sets might feel token were it not for the fitness of their scope to Britten’s musical vision. The claustrophobic world of Crabbe’s poem cannot remain sealed in the face of the elemental energy of Britten’s sea, a force that finds its mirror in the deconstructed spaces of Macfarlane’s designs. By angling his stage steeply down to the pit he creates a sense of the action flowing outwards, propelled perpetually onward to its grim conclusion.

Some canny costuming also helps to characterise the Borough – that greatest villain of the piece. All is grey and muted, characters blurring and bleeding into one another: a community whose minds and morals, we must assume, are equally indistinguishable. Only Auntie and the Nieces stand apart, their deviancy writ scarlet in their clothing.

grimes4Peter Grimes is above all a tale of community, and stands or crumbles with its chorus. Minutely rehearsed and wielding some serious power, the Royal Opera House Chorus drives the musical drama, steering a neat course through the hairpin bends of "Old Joe has Gone Fishing", and climaxing in those most chilling cries of “Peter Grimes”. Choreographed by Athol Farmer (Ruth Moss in revival), they coil and writhe as one, sketching out visually their intentions and alliances.

In the pit Andrew Davis offers similarly incisive energy, though texturally things sound a little thin at times, failing to fill Interlude VI with quite the urgency Edward Gardner and the ENO mustered in their recent account, losing ensemble in some of the more exposed passages of chordal woodwind writing.

There’s a certain anxiety these days that goes along with seeing Ben Heppner’s (pictured above) name on a cast list. Vocal issues have lingered, and while at his best there’s no doubting his quality, too often the voice sounds ailing or just plain knackered. Grimes is not a forgiving role technically, the soft-spun intensity of "Now the Great Bear" leaves nowhere to hide, and on opening night was dismally flat. I could even forgive issues of intonation (which worsened as we progressed), were there any of the colour and characterisation Vickers channelled so memorably into his singing, but as things get tighter and more pushed at the top we lose anything but the most functional of noises. Dramatically Heppner’s Grimes has always been touching, but even here is now in danger of being outclassed by Stuart Skelton, whose faltering man-child “born to blocks, spars and ropes” turns that screw that little bit further.

grimes1Amanda Roocroft (pictured left with Heppner), recently so glorious in The Makropulos Case, was also a little disappointing as schoolmistress Ellen Orford. Crafting an unusually gutsy tenderness out of Ellen’s music, it is only in the highest register that her vibrato widens to extremes, leaving the sound more than a little snatched and without the control that colours the rest of the voice. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Auntie is a more solid affair, and the quartet for the Borough female outcasts (with Rebecca Bottone and Anna Devin as the Nieces) an unusual highlight. Among the starry array of bit-part men, it is Roderick Williams’s Keene and Martyn Hill’s understatedly comic Rector that push through the dramatic texture, providing the human faces in Decker’s determinedly faceless crowd.

There will doubtless be those in the audience still hankering after the Moshinsky Grimes that Decker’s has displaced, dissatisfied with the broad gestures and rather inconclusive approach to the material. While clarity of character is lacking here, the space of the production – both physically and conceptually – offers the audience an associative collage of images from which to craft our conclusions, whether for good or ill.

Minutely rehearsed and wielding some serious power, the Royal Opera House Chorus drives the musical drama

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