ENO’s Peter Grimes is a Must-See Production

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Orchestra, Chorus, and additional chorus of the English National Opera  / Edward Gardner (conductor). London Coliseum, 29.1.2014. (MB)

Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Oford – Elza van den Heever
Captain Balstrode – Iain Paterson
Auntie – Rebecca de Pont Davies
First Niece – Rhian Lois
Second Niece – Mary Bevan
Bob Boles – Michael Colvin
Swallow – Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley – Felicity Palmer
Revd Horace Adams – Timothy Robinson
Ned Keene – Leigh Melrose
Hobson – Matthew Treviño
John – Timothy Kirrage
Dr Crabbe – Ben Craze

David Alden (director)
Ian Rutherford (assistant director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Maxine Braham (movement)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Martin Fitzpatrick (chorus master)

I am no uncritical Britten fan; last year, we heard far too much not only of his music but of ludicrous overrating – not his fault, more that of the English musical parochialism Britten himself often struggled against. As so often, the sterner test comes when an anniversary year has been and gone as in the present case – a work more prone to overrating than most, largely on account of the dearth of noteworthy English opera during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It was, however, not only that test which was passed with flying colours. The English National Opera triumphantly dismissed malevolent – as opposed to constructive – criticism from some philistine newspaper critics with their own agenda and no understanding of opera as drama (nor, for that matter, as music).

This, in short, was far and away the best staging of Peter Grimes I have seen. If even these forces could not entirely conceal the weaknesses of some sections of the score, then the dramatic fervour with which every aspect of the performance was presented made them count for little. (Even I have to admit that not every opera can be Wozzeck, though I still find Britten’s third-act homage to the tavern scene a little too close for comfort.) It was certainly the best conducting I have yet heard from Edward Gardner. If he struggles in much of the central Austro-German repertoire, he was clearly born to conduct Britten. If there were occasional moments of imprecision, they were so few as to seem touchingly human. For not only was the broad sweep of the musical drama searingly present,  the constructivism of Britten’s compositional method was lain bare too – not didactically, but with a keen sense of its dramatically generative method. This held both throughout the three acts as a whole, but also between them. Perhaps especially impressive was the sense of material emerging in the First Act, blossoming and withering as it developed. Moreover, the ENO Orchestra and Choruses were on magnificent form throughout. Weight and clarity were equally present, but so was a lighter touch where necessary, and so too was a plethora of dynamic shadings. The chorus master (and assistant conductor) clearly merits plaudits of his own.

David Alden’s staging is, quite simply, brilliant, just as much so as his brother Christopher’s more controversial Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Please, ENO, may we see that again?) Post-modernism does not, as often in Alden’s work, become overt and distracting; rather the tension between a joyless, ‘austerity’ 1940s setting and moments and episodes of heightened expressionism almost miraculously coheres. More than once I thought of Brecht: not in the sense of ‘similarity’, but in the sense that his dramaturgy seemed both extended and called into question. The hypocrisy of the Borough almost presents itself, but the spiv-like portrayal of Ned Keene seemed almost to evoke the world of Mahagonny, reminding us that this is at least partly an essay in socialism as well as an exploration of sexual repression. Presentation of Auntie as a Weimar lesbian Master/Mistress of Ceremonies sounds out of context quite out of place; and yet, it works, especially in a performance as committed as that offered by Rebecca de Pont Davies. It also sheds interesting light on her relationship with her Nieces, both disturbed and disturbing. (Abusive behaviour never lies far beneath the surface of this vile community, yet it is often as much hinted at as spelled out.) What leaves perhaps the longest and deepest impression, though, is the handling of the crowd. When choreographed as expertly as here (Maxine Braham), its madness as well as its viciousness, its sinister Daily-Mail provincial conformism and its ready manipulation by those with hidden motives, play with frightening realism – and surrealism.

Stuart Skelton’s portrayal of the anti-hero was again, without qualification, the best I have seen and heard. Skelton suggested that it is no luxury, but even a necessity, to have a Heldentenor in the role. There is no doubting the strength of his voice – his excellent Seattle Siegmund last summer offering further testimony to that – but just as impressive were the moments of hushed arioso (‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’) and all manner of colours and shades in between. The final scene showed just how movingly Skelton can act too (even if Britten, alas, is no Mussorgsky here). It did no harm, of course, to have a Balstrode as sincere (and yet with quiet toughness) as that of Iain Paterson, nor an Ellen Orford as compassionate and as silvery-toned (yet again, though, with steel beneath the surface) as in Elza van Heever’s revelatory portrayal. Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley was quite beyond compare: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple meeting Mary Whitehouse, with a generous dose of laudanum – a portrayal as intelligently sung as it was acted. Leigh Melrose proved utterly convincing as this especially sleazy Ned Keene, and Matthew Treviño revealed a dark, focused, highly attractive bass as Hobson, the carrier. There was not a weak link in the cast, nor in the performance as a whole. This is a production that absolutely demands to be seen – and heard.

Mark Berry