Prom 55: ENO Offers Exemplary Performance of Peter Grimes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, ENO Chorus and Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 24.8.2012. (RB)

Peter Grimes Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford Amanda Roocroft
Captain Balstrode Iain Paterson
Auntie Rebecca de Pont Davies
First Niece Gillian Ramm
Second Niece Mairead Buicke
Swallow Mark Richardson
Mrs Sedley Dame Felicity Palmer
Revd Horace Adams Stuart Kale
Ned Keene Leigh Melrose
Hobson Darren Jeffery
John (silent) Jacob Mason-White

Colin Davis was the last conductor to present a complete performance of Peter Grimes to the Proms when he brought his famous Royal Opera House production in 1975. Gardner has followed suit by bringing his equally distinguished 2009 English National Opera (ENO) production with the Australian tenor, Stuart Skelton, reprising the title role.

Britten wrote Peter Grimes during the final years of the second world war and it was first performed in 1945, one month after VE day. It is based on George Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’ with a libretto by the left-wing playwright, Montagu Slater. The story of Grimes, the fisherman who had inadvertently caused the death of his apprentice and become an outcast in the local village, had clearly captured Britten’s imagination, and the resulting work is one of the greatest operas of the 20th century.

Given that this was a semi-staged concert performance I expected to see a fairly static production with the principal singers sitting in chairs at the front and standing for their required solos and ensembles. At the very beginning it looked as if this was what the ENO were going to deliver. However, after the initial scene at the coroner’s inquest, the chairs were whisked off the stage and the cast gave us a full blooded music drama, acting their parts brilliantly and using the full facilities of the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) to maximum effect. The chorus pointed accusing fingers at Grimes during the initial scene setting up the dynamic which runs through the opera of Grimes the outcast and outsider being hounded by the uncomprehending townsfolk. The gossip and festivities in ‘The Boar’ were brought brilliantly to life while the RAH’s organ proved an invaluable asset for the church scene in Act 2, and lighting was used to highlight the time of day when the action was taking place. At one point, a rope was brought on to the stage while in another scene Skelton’s Grimes threw his apprentice over his shoulder before carrying him off. Perhaps the best dramatic effect of all was at the end of the opera where the devastated Skelton climbed down off the stage and walked through the assembled sea of Promenaders in the arena before making his way off the stage.

Skelton is an absolutely wonderful Grimes and he was at turns lyrical, bullish dreamy and inconsolable. His interpretation is probably closer to Jon Vickers’ aggressive and brutish incarnation than Pears’ dreamy neurotic. He displayed an impressive dynamic and expressive range in the wonderfulAct 1 E major aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ with his wonderful tenor voice soaring and filling the RAH. In the Act 2 scene in Grimes’ hut Skelton’s monologue was at turns defiant and lyrical as he yearned for another life of quiet domestic calm with Ellen Orford. In the final unaccompanied ‘mad scene’ Skelton realised perfectly the pain and isolation that Grimes must be feeling although he was not quite able to match the incomparable Peter Pears in this particular scene.

The characterisation and singing were for the most part very good from the supporting cast. Amanda Roocroft was a sympathetic and sensitive Ellen Orford and she gave a first rate account of the famous embroidery aria in Act 3 displaying flexible and elegant phrasing and a sweet tone. Elsewhere, however, the tone was rather thin and the diction and tuning occasionally suffered when she was singing in the upper register. Iain Paterson’s Balstrode was humane and world wise and his bass baritone voice was full and rich and the diction was excellent. Matthew Best was replaced at the last minute by Mark Richardson who perfectly realised the clipped and officious Swallow. His diction and the interplay with the ENO’s woodwind were particularly good in the opening scene.

The cast gave a wonderful portrayal of the assembled coterie of characters at ‘The Boar’. Pont Davies’ Auntie was the life and soul of the party, Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley was the perfect gossip and stirrer, while the nieces provided the necessary vacuous humour. The party got into full swing with ‘Old Joe has Gone Fishing’ at the end of Act 1 where the cast and orchestra captured the jauntiness of the number while remaining rhythmically incisive. The rendition of ‘Grimes is at his Exercise’ in Act 2 was brilliant with Ned, Boles and Auntie whipping up the crowd while Gardner and the ENO provided a taut and responsive accompaniment and made the most of the militaristic references in the score.

Gardner and the ENO’s chorus and orchestra were exemplary throughout and this performance of the famous sea interludes and passacaglia one of the best I have ever heard. The first interlude which depicts dawn on the beach was a beautiful piece of tone painting with the strings and woodwind alive to the ebb and flow of the music and the brass sounding ominous threats in the distance. The storm interlude was a real sea squall with Gardner and the ENO making the most of the driving rhythms and jagged dissonances in the inner parts. The third interlude was bright and vibrant – a real clearing of the air after the storm – and the spiky melody in the strings and woodwind was played with zest and vitality. The fourth interlude, which is a night piece depicting moonlight on the waves, was played with real tenderness and warmth in the strings while the woodwind and harp depicted sharp pin points of light. Britten wanted the passacaglia to depict the suffering of the voiceless apprentice and the opening viola solo was full of quiet foreboding. As the piece unfolded the audience became increasingly aware of the heightened anxiety of the protagonists and growing sense of dread.

Altogether, this was an absolutely outstanding production of Grimes both musically and dramatically. Gardner and Skelton were both at the top of their game and are clearly names to watch out for in future.

Robert Beattie