ENOS’s Peter Grimes Makes the Big Screen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten,Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Operas / Edward Gardner (conductor), screened at Duke of York Cinema, Brighton, 23.2.14 (RB)

Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Elza van den Heever
Balstrode: Iain Paterson
Auntie: Rebecca de Pont Davies
Swallow: Matthew Best
Ned Keene: Leigh Melrose
Bob Boles: Michael Colvin
Mrs Sedley: Felicity Palmer
Hobson: Matthew Trevino
Reverend Horace Adams: Tim Robinson
First Niece: Rhian Lois
Second Niece: Mary Bevan

Director David Alden


This acclaimed production of Peter Grimes conducted by Edward Gardner and featuring the superb Australian tenor, Stuart Skelton, is the first ENO opera to hit the big screen.  David Alden’s production is a surreal, expressionistic interpretation of the opera.  It uses monochrome sets and dark and shadowy lighting and updates the action to 1945 (the year when the opera was written).  We are introduced to a an extraordinary gallery of outlandish characters including Rebecca de Pont Davies’ androgynous Auntie and her vacuous nieces (looking as if they have come straight from the set of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret), Leigh Melrose’s shallow spiv, Ned Keene and Michael Colvin’s hypocritical Methodist preacher, Bob Boles. The scene outside the Moot Hall in Act 3 looked as if it belonged in a Jean Genet novel as we see the buttoned up Swallow dressed in a pink tutu approaching one of the nieces dressed in a white sailor suit while a male sailor dances a lively jig.  There are multiple allusions to Grimes, the outsider, being scapegoated and persecuted by the mob, to Weimar decadence and hedonistic sexuality and to persecuting fundamentalist Christianity.  Society is depicted as carnal, corrupt and hypocritical and locked into a cycle of ever increasing viciousness with Grimes who refuses to conform.

Stuart Skelton is rapidly becoming one of the great exponents of the role of Peter Grimes.  He moved seamlessly from brutish aggression, to pained anguish and dreamy lyricism and displayed animpressive expressive and dynamic range in his Act 1 aria ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’.  He is much more physical and threatening in the role than Peter Pears but he found space to bring out the wounded reflections and aspirations of the character in the wonderful Act 2 monologue.  His acting was superb and the look of pain and desperation on his face as he cradled the bloodied body of his apprentice in his arms was very affecting.  Skelton was excellent but better still was Elza van den Heever in the role of Ellen Orford.  She brought a restrained dignity to the character and there was a gorgeous lustre to her voice, rich and varied use of tone colour and wonderfully flexible phrasing.  Van den Heever’s handling of Ellen’s monologue at the beginning of Act 2 was outstanding particularly in the way she was able to convey the complex emotions and muti-faceted nature of the character.

The supporting cast were also very good with Matthew Trevino’s Hobson and de Pont Davies’ Auntie being the two stand outs for me.  Trevino brought considerable resonance and vocal heft to the role and there was a warmth and lovely dark timbre to his Act 1 duet with van den Heever.  Davies’ gave us a very sinister and manipulative Auntie and at various points we see her playing with dolls, pulling the strings of her marionette nieces and whipping up the local townsfolk.Iain Paterson gave us a humane and diplomaticBalstrode and his vocal entries were robust and well executed.  Leigh Melrose gave us a fully fleshed out Ned Keene but I occasionally felt his performance was a little too mannered and caricatured – this may be because we were watching him in close up on the big screen and I suspect the effect in the Opera House may not be so pronounced.  Matthew Best was good as the officious Swallow although some of his responses were a little sluggish in the opening scene.  The scene in Act 3 where he wore the pink tutu was a nice touch and handled with aplomb.  The big set piece numbers were exhilarating and almost had a Broadway feel with the cast giving us elaborate dance moves to ‘Old Joe has Gone Fishing’, and cast, chorus and orchestra revving on all cylinders for ‘Grimes is at His Exercise’.

Edward Gardner is highly adept in English orchestral music and opera and both he and the ENO orchestra were superlative throughout.  The entries were razor sharp, the rhythms tight and the balance between orchestra and singers spot on.  In the first of the famous Sea Interludesthe orchestra successfully depicted the vastness and grand vista of the sea while thepremonitions of the dangers lurking underneath the surface were handled well by the brass.  The storm had a wild, visceral quality that Gardner worked up into a ferocious climax.  The third interlude brought out the gleam and sparkle of the sunlight after the storm while the passacaglia, which represents the suffering of the voiceless apprentice, had a foreboding quality and intensity.  There was some tender playing from the strings in the final interlude with the woodwind and harp doing a splendid job depicting the moonlight on the waves.

Overall, this was an outstanding production and an excellent choice for the first ENO live screening.

Robert Beattie


See also Mark Berry’s review: https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/01/enos-peter-grimes-must-see-production