The second revival of ENO’s Peter Grimes is a complete triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). London Coliseum, 21.9.2023. (JR)

The cast of ENO’s Peter Grimes © Tom Bowles

Director – David Alden
Assistant director – Ian Rutherford
Set designer – Paul Steinberg
Movement director – Maxine Braham
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman
Lighting revived by – Gary James
Costumes – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Dramaturgy – Michael Küster
Chorus director – James Henshaw

Peter Grimes – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Ellen Orford – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Captain Balstrode – Simon Bailey
Auntie – Christine Rice
First niece – Cleo Lee-McGowan
Second niece – Ava Dodd
Bob Boles – John Findon
Swallow – Clive Bayley
Mrs Sedley – Anne-Marie Owens
Rev Horace Adams – Ronald Samm
Ned Keene – Alex Otterburn
Hobson – David Soar

To open the 2023/2024 season at the London Coliseum, English National Opera has revived Britten’s searing psychological drama Peter Grimes for the second time; the premiere was back in 2009 and received glowing reviews for its thrilling, brilliant production. It still manages to pack the house and deservedly so. This David Alden production is one of the best I have seen of any opera. My colleague Mark Berry said, when reviewing the 2014 revival, that this is a ‘must-see’ production, far and away the best staging of this opera that he had also seen (review click here).

The stage uses sheets of grey and slightly rusty corrugated iron to make the walls of Grimes’s hut, the seawalls, the Coroner’s Court, the fish market, the sea promenade: it works perfectly. The predominant colour is grey to match the typical weather of the Suffolk coast. The sun only comes through once.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Peter Grimes) © Tom Bowles

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones makes a role debut; and he is first-rate. He has volume and stamina, no rasping tones, I have heard many a tenor dry up by the third act. His head voice at the top was convincing, he struggled only, very briefly, with the very lowest notes. Intonation was spot on, especially in his ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ aria. I would compare him extremely favourably with many tenors who have sung the role over the years, many world-famous. He acts well too: in Act III he sounded like a broken-down man. A tear came to my eye as he forlornly wandered off the stage to drown himself by sinking his boat.

Also making a role debut was Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ellen Orford. I found her voice a mite shrill at times – especially early in the performance, though she warmed up after that – and lacking some warmth in the lower register, but her performance was very well received.

Simon Bailey impressed with his sonorous baritone as Captain Balstrode. He looked the part and acted convincingly as Grimes’s friend.

All the characters were strongly drawn and wonderfully costumed. There were no weak links whatsoever. Christine Rice as Auntie was most eye-catching; pub owner turned dominatrix as the producer showed us visually and vividly the weaknesses, including sexual and drug addictions, of the townsfolk.

Clive Bayley was a strongly sung Swallow, John Findon a hefty Boles, Alex Otterburn a louche Ned Keene. Anne-Marie Owens as Mrs Sedley – in more of a spoken part than sung – made a perfect crime detective. Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd, dressed as school-girls, sang the two nieces, very well, especially the chromatically difficult ‘From the gutter’.

The chorus were fantastic, forceful when crying out at the front of the stage: the only mystery of the production was the waving of Union Jacks near the end, was this a jibe at narrow-minded Brexiteers?

Martyn Brabbins was a powerhouse in the pit, surely a knighthood will not be long in the waiting. He made the score sound fresh and modern, the orchestra played very well for him, especially the brass. And what a nice touch to allow them up on the stage for a curtain call, rather than keep them, hidden to most, in the pit.

I have one gripe to management: please do not let latecomers in if they arrive after the start; many traipsed in, one by one, shown to vacant seats in the stalls by an usher with a torch and having those seated stand up to let them in – even during an aria!

So, a real triumph for the ENO, a sure box-office success and I urge you to rush and claim any remaining tickets. There are seven more performances in September and October.

John Rhodes

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