Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2011

Towards the end of Act III when Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode find Grimes on his own, he covers his head with his coat, just as the apprentice did in Act II when Ellen tried to draw him out. This is a Grimes whose appalling lack of social skills render him easy meat for the inhabitants of The Borough, who can forget their differences by uniting against him, treating him as an unwanted outsider, and Ben Heppner played that part with consummate skill. I first saw him in this role in Chicago in 1997, and there is something touching about his lumbering clumsiness, his visionary dreams, his determined bloody mindedness and his singing of “What harbour shelters peace?”

Grimes enters the tavern in Act I, all photos by Clive Barda

Amanda Roocroft was simply wonderful as Ellen Orford, her voice as sure as the personality she inhabited on stage. The only woman who could really bring Peter out of his shell, she was so strong when she criticises him for “This unrelenting work, this grey unresting industry”. Yet even she cannot protect the boy — well played by Patrick Curtis — who looked to be no more than eleven years old. When the door to the tavern flies wide open for the second time in Act I the boy stands there alone, just as Grimes did earlier when he entered and stood in the open doorway singing, “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades …”. This powerful production by Willy Davis was extremely well revived by François de Carpentries, amply bringing out these high moments.

Act II, Grimes takes the apprentice off to work despite Ellen’s pleas

Jonathan Summers gave a strongly sympathetic performance of Balstrode, and Roderick Williams performed well as the apothecary, Ned Keene. I would have preferred more spitefulness and edge from Jane Henschel’s Mrs. Sedley, who came over rather as an old fuss pot, but Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a fine Auntie, and Rebecca Bottone and Anna Devin acted their hearts out as her nieces. Whenever they were on stage they were always near the centre of the action, and worked brilliantly well together.

Act III, The Borough prepare to march to Grimes’s hut

The designs by John Macfarlane are plain but effective, well lit by David Finn. I love the opening of the set for the dawn music of the first sea interlude, and when Ned Keene breaks the tension in the Act I tavern scene with “Old Joe has gone fishing”, I love the direction that produces a dance in 7/4 time. This production brings out the horrid awkwardness of Grimes’s estrangement from the local community, eliciting our sympathy for him, and was powerfully supported by the orchestra and chorus under Andrew Davis’s direction.

Performances continue until July 3 — for details click here.

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