Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House: an outstanding night of theatre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 17.3.2022. (MB)

Townspeople and fisherfolk of the Borough (c) Yasuko Kageyama

Director – Deborah Warner
Set designs – Michael Levine
Costumes – Luis F. Carvalho
Lighting design – Peter Mumford
Choreography – Kim Brandstrup
Chorus master – William Spaulding

Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Swallow – Sir John Tomlinson
Peter Grimes – Allan Clayton
Ned Keene – Jacque Imbrailo
Rev. Horace Adams – James Gilchrist
Bob Boles – John Graham-Hall
Auntie – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
First Niece – Jennifer France
Second Niece – Alexandra Lowe
Mrs Sedley – Rosie Aldridge
Ellen Orford – Maria Bengtsson
Captain Balstrode – Sir Bryn Terfel
The Boy – Cruz Fitz
Aerialist – Jamie Higgins

London has proved fortunate with recent productions of Peter Grimes (and doubtless with older ones too). David Alden’s 2014 production (review click here) for ENO and Willy Decker’s for the Royal Opera (in its 2011 revival, review here) both had considerable virtues and received performances. This new staging from Deborah Warner and the performances that brought it to life were nevertheless in a class of their own, showing the Royal Opera at the top of its game.

All three productions will have displeased the Campaign for Real Barnacles, and thank goodness for that. Warner takes us into the dark underbelly of a contemporary, down-at-heel seaside town, with neither room nor appetite for prettified nostalgia for an early nineteenth century that never was (and certainly never was in George Crabbe). I thought of a poorer version of Margate, somewhere perhaps in Essex — and lo and behold, had that confirmed in Warner’s programme reference to ‘some of the extremely poor and socially deprived towns of the Essex coast, namely Jaywick Sands’, testament not to any great acuity on my part but to Michael Levine’s sets, Luis F. Carvalho’s costumes, and to the entire ensemble of Warner’s production, sharply, meaningfully choreographed by Kim Brandstrup. There is poverty here, also reckless abandon; there are drugs, alcohol, and sleaze; there is a ‘community’ that rounds on an outsider and in the violence of that rounding discovers a nativist identity and ‘morality’ that chills and kills. It takes back control, polices its borders, and deals with outsiders in a terrifying march of intimidation, fire, and nihilism. This Borough is UKIP, even BNP, country, in which shirtless neo-Nazis mix with dealers such as Ned Keene, one of the more sympathetic townsmen if ultimately untrustworthy on account of his habit; and bigoted, ‘respectable’ rentiers such as Mrs Sedley. It is not, however, an amorphous mass: not everyone is like that, and everyone has his or her own story. Warner takes immense care, as do all of those participating, every member of the chorus clearly directed individually and coming to life both in that individuality and as part of a deadly, group identity. Not only do Grimes and his apprentices — one hauntingly portrayed as a just out-of-touch aerialist vision — have no chance; nor does Ellen Orford, herself a victim of Grimes’s physical violence. ‘The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.’

There is no sign that Grimes is homosexual, or Muslim, or Polish for that matter; but this is undoubtedly the rough justice that would be meted out to him if he were. It is a similar social tragedy to that one sees in parts of Brandenburg or Saxony, doubtless across the world. But it has a particularly English flavour. They do like to be beside the seaside, and they do not like others, with no place to be there, to attempt to join them. Britten’s fraught relationship to England and Englishness, his (partly) thwarted internationalism, and the parochialism of some of his devotees are set in implied counterpoint, but with the work rather than its critics ultimately setting the terms of examination. It is slightly odd — maybe more than that — that, in the contemporary setting, Grimes’s apprentice should be so young a boy, but even that serves to remind us of another aspect of the ‘Britten problem’, which this contemporary Borough would doubtless address with savage, summary justice.

There could not, I think, have been a better choice to conduct this production than Sir Mark Elder, who led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, on as fine form as I can recall, as if a man possessed. He clearly believes in every note of the score and, more to the point, revealed all manner of potentialities I had barely imagined were there. Musical processes are clear and generative, indicative of a serious attempt to address the problems of form that so often bedevil Britten’s music in work and performance. An account of titanic clashes and contrasts spanned, on the one hand, screaming echoes of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth and, beyond it, the Mahler of the Fifth Symphony; and, on the other, passages of translucent beauty that seemed to have all the time in the world, yet are fated to be cut short. Elder’s conducting was urgent, even when spacious, whipping up a sequence of storms of fatal consequence that not only framed, but incited, the action on stage. We were reminded that, here, the sea was a thing of danger as well as livelihood, a theatre of cruelty and redress far more than a picturesque landscape.

Allan Clayton (Peter Grimes) and Cruz Fitz (The Boy) (c) Yasuko Kageyama

Another man possessed was Allan Clayton’s Peter. If I say it was the most beautifully sung account of the role I have heard that would unduly delimit its range, though in many respects it certainly was beautiful — and more youthfully vulnerable than the typical craggy old man. This, crucially, was a performance that dug deep psychologically, that suggested profound consideration of dilemmas and traumas faced by the character, and frankly admitted that not all could or should be answered. I could not help but think of Boris Godunov in Clayton’s final scene; the voice is different, as are music, drama, and almost everything else, yet psychological descent and devastation presented tragic parallels across the divide.

Maria Bengtsson gave us a profoundly human, refreshingly unhackneyed Ellen Orford, a force for good whose goodness went so cruelly punished. Her ‘Embroidery Aria’ could not have been more touchingly sung, its difficult intervals navigated with ease and in perfect harmony with the orchestra. Jacques Imbrailo’s Ned Keene offered a fascinating study in ambiguity, perhaps beyond mere good and evil. Powerfully and, again, beautifully sung, so much more lay in the acting: a drug-addled hedonist who exerted a mysterious yet undeniable attraction, not an outside as such, yet never quite to be assimilated. Bryn Terfel’s Balstrode may well be the finest opera performance I have seen from him, fully in command of the role and its possibilities, throughout exuding deep humanity and a wisdom that again set him apart without excluding him. Catherine Wyn-Rogers gave us a world-weary yet lively Auntie of experience, Rosie Aldridge a properly vicious Mrs Sedley, more insidious than the nicely buffoonish Bob Boles of John Graham-Hall. There were no disappointments in a strong supporting cast, which seemed to grow out of that minutely observed direction of the chorus: a community of individual and mass imperatives. Choral singing was likewise outstanding, the Royal Opera Chorus on better form than I have heard for a long time, fully engaged in portrayal of Britten, Warner, and Elder’s visions (as well, doubtless, as their own).

This enthusiasm comes from a place of ambivalence toward the work itself. I am not yet persuaded that swathes of the second act in particular are not a little dull, nor that the influence of Wozzeck at the beginning of the third is not a little too close for comfort, ‘Arias’ still seem to stand out awkwardly from the rest, and so on. If you are going to be influenced, though, you will struggle to find a better source of influence than Wozzeck, and not every opera can attain the perfection of Figaro or Tristan. This was an outstanding night of theatre, strongly to be recommended to everyone: to the Britten devotees who will not give two hoots about my reservations; to fellow Britten-agnostics, who may also find previous reactions challenged; and even to those more hostile, whose road to conversion may have its point of departure. Not to be missed.

Mark Berry

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