By Benjamin Britten
English National Opera
English National Opera’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s 1945 operatic masterpiece “Peter Grimes’ is unreservedly outstanding. Musical Director Edward Gardner and stage director David Alden have created a landmark production to match Sir Colin Davis’ and Elijah Moshinsky’s celebrated version at the Royal Opera House thirty years ago. Alden’s direction is exemplary: as Donizetti’s ‘Lucia Di Lammermoor’ for ENO last year, Alden presents a highly detailed production inwhich every role and dramatic moment has been thoroughly explored so as to underline the musical score. The dramatic action is perfectly paced, as is Gardner’s direction of the superb ENO orchestra: allowing the beautiful and haunting lyricism of Britten’s score to shine through. For ‘Peter Grimes’ is one of the greatest musical evocations of the Sea in all its shifting and beguiling moods and Gardner and his orchestra delineate these with energy and intensity.
Based on an episode from George Crabbe’s narrative poem ‘The Borough’ (1810) about the fishing community of Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast ( a constant inspiration for Britten’s music), the opera centers on the lone fisherman, Peter Grimes, who is an outsider in the village. Grimes has taken on several boy apprentices from the local workhouse – all of whom have died in ‘accidental circumstances’. Unable to find an adult to help him, he takes on another boy, for whom the equally lonely and widowed schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, stands as surety against the suspicions and prejudices of the village. When the boy dies, the village turn against Grimes. Alden updates the action to immediately post war Aldeburgh: as it might have been when Britten was writing the opera there.
The uniformly excellent cast is led by young American tenor Stuart Skelton who ably captures the brutal nature of Grimes as well as his quiet poetic visionary moments (when his voice achieves a breathtaking and moving gentleness). Both he and Amanda Roocroft (as Ellen) clearly convey the inner loneliness and misery of their roles and the moment when they become friends at the end of the Prologue is very affecting. Miss Roocroft is equally moving in her portrayal of Ellen’s struggle to find courage to speak out against the community.
Celebrated Canadian baritone Gerald Finley brings sympathy and integrity to the mysterious Captain Balstrode (here portrayed as a one-armed World War Two Naval officer) adding another impeccable characterization to his career. Felicity Palmer excels as the town gossip Mrs. Sedley (even dancing in triumph as her suspicions about Grimes are proved true) and Leigh Melrose is quite chilling as the misfit apothecary Ned Keene with Rebecca De Pont Davies providing an unusually slinky ‘Auntie’ (owner of the local pub and brothel) bringing a touch of pre-War Berlin decadence to the dismal village. And all the other villagers’ roles are wonderfully defined, played and sung.
Paul Steinberg’s sets effectively capture the sullen streets of the village against the dismal coastline under miserable skies. This looming atmosphere is equally evoked by Adam Silverman’s lighting with is seaweed green hues. Together they create a tangible sense of place in which the singers create a tangible sense of community.
But the real stars of the evening are the chorus (augmented with over twenty extra members for this production) – who present a gallery of characters as well defined as the principals. They sing with a spine-tingling force - a force as implacable and ferocious as the sea itself.
English National Opera have always excelled at large cast ensemble opera. “Peter Grimes’ (which the company first premiered in 1945 when it was Sadlers Wells Opera) is their finest hour.