United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2017  – Britten, Peter Grimes (concert performance): Soloists, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus, Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Students from the Royal Northern College of Music/Edward Gardner (conductor), Usher Hall, 13.8.2017. (RP)
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Erin Wall
Captain Balstrode – Christopher Purves
Auntie – Susan Bickley
Niece 1 – Hanna Husáhr
Niece 2 – Vibeke Kristensen
Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Swallow – Andrew Greenan
Ned Keene – Marcus Farnsworth
Bob Boles – Robert Murray
Rev Horace Adams – James Gilchrist
Hobson – Barnaby Rea
Stage concept – Vera Rostin Wexelsen
Chorus master – Håkon Matti Screed
The program for the Edinburgh International Festival’s semi-staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes listed the singers in alphabetical order. It may be the festival’s custom, but nothing could have been more fitting. For although Stuart Skelton delivered a towering performance in the title role, the entire cast created exceptionally vivid, fascinating characterizations of the citizens of The Borough, the fictional fishing village on the east coast of England where the tragic tale unfolds. A set might have anchored the action more firmly in time and place, but it would be hard to imagine a more electrifying performance.
Vera Rostin Wexelsen created the insular atmosphere of the seaside village seemingly out of thin air. A few simple props – barrels on either side of the stage, a wooden box in which the terrified apprentice places his shoes, Ellen’s knitting bag with its skein of bright red yarn, and a length of rope that Grimes lets slip, sending the boy crashing to his death – were all that was needed. Smart casual was the order of the day, with the reverend’s clerical collar and the boy’s bright red sweater the only real bits of costume. Even the naughty nieces, deliciously portrayed by Hanna Husáhr and Vibeke Kristensen with come-hither looks and high spirits, wore sexy outfits that one might see just about anywhere nowadays. The chorus was dressed in similar garb with a few of the men wearing jaunty caps.
The sense of claustrophobia was heightened by the singers being compressed on the edge of the stage. From there they could gossip, scandalize, peer out to sea for shoals of fish, scan the horizon for an incoming storm and nonchalantly watch Grime’s boat burn in the distance. The whole village and their foibles were under a microscope. If there is a nit to pick, it would be having Grimes walk through the audience to scuttle his boat at the end. Skelton projected Grime’s innate nobility, but it was a long walk.
In that poignant scene where Ellen Orford sings of her hope for their future with the boy silently sitting beside her, the choir had their backs to the audience, facing the organ pipes. In an instant they were in church, telegraphing the self-righteousness of proper folk and their indifference, if not hostility, towards Grimes. The woman, who saw the flicker of a flame of goodness in the man upon which she hung her hope of happiness, was shattered when she noticed the rip in the boy’s shirt and found the bruise, instantly realizing that Grimes was already at his exercise. At such close range, the scene packed an emotional wallop.
Skelton is a bear of a man with a titanic voice. Grime’s strength and rage were always present, but his vulnerability and even a hint of tenderness were hidden just beneath that gruff exterior. He could pare his voice down to practically a whisper, almost bleached of tone, and then unleash it in a blast of fury seconds later. Skelton created the most human of Grimes, whose anguish when ruing over the fates of the two boys was heartrending. What’s the use of comparisons with the past? He was Peter Grimes.
Erin Wall with her beautiful voice was a potent Ellen Orford, whose restraint and modest dreams of marriage and family were in stark contrast to Grimes’s grand ambitions. If Grimes has a friend in The Borough, it is Captain Balstrode, who seems to have some understanding of the demons that drive the man. Christopher Purves was excellent in the role; his voice and his acting one and the same – polished, direct and honest.
I was captivated by the no-nonsense Auntie of Susan Bickley. There was something in her gaze as she peered out at the sea that registered a profound world weariness and an unsettling depth of understanding. As for Grimes, he just was bad for business. You wondered what Auntie was thinking as she watched his boat burn.
Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Mrs Sedley was a woman on a mission – a relentless Miss Marple on opioids – intent on sniffing out misdeeds of any sort, but especially murder. Markus Farnsworth’s Ned Keene supplied her laudanum but had little time for her meddling, especially when she zoomed in on the sexual shenanigans going on in Auntie’s pub. He has a warm smile that shone forth in his singing, and an eager glint his eye when anticipating a bit of a romp with the lovely nieces. James Gilchrist was the perfect parson, a bit daft, a bit hypocritical, and with just a smidgen of piety.
If the cast was near ideal, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was well-nigh perfection. Edward Gardiner led them in a luminous account of Britten’s masterpiece that captured both the violence and the poignancy of the score. He could whip the orchestra into a frenzy, literally leaping off the podium at the end of the first act, and as the final notes sounded leave you with a lump in the throat. In any other performance, the orchestra would have stolen the show. Here it was part of a splendid whole.
The 2017 Edinburgh International Festival runs until 28 August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk