Peter Grimes, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, January 2014Posted on 30 January 2014
My lingering impression from this unusual David Alden production is of Grimes as one of the few sane people in the town. In Act III the choreographed actions of the townspeople make them look like a mad Greek chorus celebrating some Dionysian rite, and when they sing Peter Grimes! at the tops of their voices it sounds as if they are calling out to a native chthonic deity. Perhaps they are, because in Act I when Balstrode suggests Peter try sailing a wider sea, he responds, I am native, rooted here.
Grimes is a driven man, suffering bouts of paranoia, unable to make allowances for others, and Stuart Skelton’s compelling portrayal also shows him as a shambling poet with a touch of nobility, his voice commanding our rapt attention as it moves from barely a whisper to full power. This was a sensational performance. Hopes that Ellen Orford might gentle his condition are dashed by Grimes’s turbulence, and this production shows her as the soft centre of his character, oddly disengaged when the new apprentice writhes around from wounds to his neck, while she sits calmly knitting. South African soprano Elza van der Heever, making her ENO debut, sang this role with a tranquil beauty, her future, like that of other heroines in her repertoire (Desdemona, Elisabeth de Valois, Anna Bolena), decided by forces beyond her control.
The supporting cast was similar to that of 2009 when this production was new. Felicity Palmer was again a strongly voiced Mrs Sedley, Leigh Melrose a forceful Ned Keene whose sexual peccadilloes involve wanting his elderly patient to feel his desire, and Rebecca de Pont Davies a stylish Auntie with neatly trimmed hair, colourfully striped suit, fur coat and cane. Her ‘nieces’ in their school uniforms, well sung by Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan, move in strangely choreographed harmony, occasionally using their dolls in like uniform to emphasise actions in the minds of others. These weird townsfolk, full of unrequited anger against Grimes after his acquittal in the case of a former apprentice, form a disturbing background that causes the fisherman to let go of the rope holding the boy when they approach his hut for the second time. Their anger, an important catalyst for Grimes’s tragedy in this production, emerges before the overture as a murmur from stage rear builds up before the orchestra comes in.
This intriguing reading of the opera by David Alden is complemented by a superb performance by Edward Gardner and the orchestra bringing out the dramatic power of the music without any overstretch or unnecessary force. This was the ENO orchestra and chorus at their sublime best, and if you saw this in 2009 go again. Skelton has deepened his portrayal of Grimes, van der Heever was a wonderfully gentle Ellen, and as Captain Balstrode, Iain Paterson was a commanding vocal and physical presence with his missing left arm and limp. At the end, as the townsfolk look out to sea where a boat is reported to be sinking, he raises his right arm in a salute, bringing this remarkable performance of Britten’s masterpiece to a close. Unmissable.
There are seven further performances, the last on February 27, and a live cinema screening on February 23 — for details click here.