Peter Grimes, English National Opera, London Coliseum, May 2009

This superb Benjamin Britten opera was given a terrific performance by Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton singing a strongly lyrical Grimes, Amanda Roocroft a slightly underpowered Ellen Orford, and Gerald Finley a rather too young looking Captain Balstrode, whom I found somewhat unconvincing. Felicity Palmer was terrific as the busybody Mrs. Sedley, and Michael Colvin was a beautifully voiced Methodist, waving his Bible. But there were too many Bibles being waved in this rather odd production by David Alden, who has gone out of his way to portray the inhabitants of the Borough as being crazier than we normally think of them. He is also a director who likes to put some off-beat sex onto stage, but I think it detracts from the power of this opera. Auntie admittedly runs a pub that doubles as a whore-house, but her ‘nieces’ were made to be almost mentally retarded victims of sexual abuse, dressed in identical school uniforms, playing with their dolls. They even hit them when Grimes hits Ellen and forces his new apprentice into joining him for yet more fishing on Sunday. Auntie herself was played as a weirdly transgendered woman in a long coat, performed as a sideshow by Rebecca de Pont Davies. That was not her fault, because Alden plays this opera as part musical, rather in the style of Kurt Weill, and some of the weirder scenes in Act III had a feel of Berlin decadence from the 1920s. There was even a dancing sailor from the Royal Navy — what was he doing in this fishing village?

The lighting by Adam Silverman was very effective, as were the sets by Paul Steinberg, who also collaborated with Alden on La Calisto at the Royal Opera House earlier this season. Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel dressed most of the chorus in very dark colours, which was effective, but there were some odd extras, like the animal head for Auntie in part of Act III. Again the director was showing the inhabitants of the Borough as weird, while Grimes and Ellen are more normal by comparison, but I think the story needs no outside help. What it does need is to make the high points as effective as possible, and Grimes’s Act I soliloquy, “The Great Bear and the Pleiades . . .” can have a tremendous impact, but here he delivered it from a sitting position in the pub rather than it being a sudden intrusion from without by Grimes. This might be seen as a small quibble, but I’m afraid this production left me cold, never really driving home the tension, except for the death of the apprentice near the end. But the production aside, what really drove Britten’s masterpiece home was Stuart Skelton, Felicity Palmer, the chorus, and the conductor Edward Gardner. They were the stars of the evening for me.

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