Peter Grimes – Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough [semi-staged performance]
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Pamela Armstrong
Captain Balstrode – Alan Opie
Auntie – Pamela Helen Stephen
Nieces – Malin Christensson & Elizabeth Cragg
Bob Boles – Michael Colvin
Swallow – Brindley Sherratt
Mrs Sedley – Jean Rigby
Ned Keene – Mark Stone
Horace Adams – Brian Galliford
Hobson – Jonathan Veira
John, the apprentice – Charlie Gill
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Slater – Director
Alex Doidge-Green – Designer
Tim Mascall – Lighting designer
London Philharmonic/Vladimir Jurowski at Symphony Hall Birmingham – Britten’s Peter Grimes with Stuart Skelton
Thursday, September 26, 2013 Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by Alexander Campbell
This, the first event of the Birmingham International Concert Season, proved to be exceptional both from a musical and dramatic perspective bringing facets of Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece prominently to the fore. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, in Symphony Hall’s bright and clear acoustic, provided some outstanding playing and many felicities that might lie dormant in an opera-house pit were here brought into strong relief. Britten’s careful use of percussion effects registered as they seldom do even on recordings. Even the ‘Interludes’ sounded freshly minted. There was excellent use of the acoustics for the off-stage band at the start of the final Act, and likewise the distant voices that interrupt or augment Grimes’s delirium in the same Act. Vladimir Jurowski’s pacing was exemplary; he seemed to relish the lighter moments of the work giving them space, and yet there was no absence of the elemental – for the weather plays a critical role as a protagonist in this piece. The Borough’s inexorable descent into vengeful fury was tellingly handled.
The cast was strong. Stuart Skelton‘s Peter Grimes, familiar from ENO and a concert performance at the BBC Proms, is surely becoming the definitive interpreter of his generation. He sings the role beautifully – quiet and introspective when needed (‘The Great Bear and Pleiades’) and with a clarion voice for the character’s more forceful moments. He benefits from a strong and credible physical presence too. From the interpretive perspective it is hard to recall a Grimes so obviously traumatised by the experience of losing his first apprentice and so ill-equipped to deal with the emotional fallout. His depiction of Grimes’s desperate need for emotional support and his frustrated inability to allow those who do care to provide it is vocally and physically expressed. Every utterance was clear and weighted as part of a complex and devastating portrayal.
As Ellen Orford, Pamela Armstrong was a good foil for this. She excelled in the set-pieces where her limpid tone rode and orchestra well, but was perhaps less successful in some of the short choppy conversational sections where there was occasionally a lack of power. Her characterisation was subtle and understated, perhaps a little too much so at the opera’s ending. One does not need Orford to be a tragedy queen, but even in the context of a semi-staging she could have brought a little more to Ellen’s ultimate predicament.
The opera is full of wonderful vignettes, and the rest of the cast provided these in abundance. Alan Opie’s bluff yet sage Balstrode was an apparent tower of strength yet unable to quell the extremes of the community when aroused to violence. Jean Rigby was a spiky and dangerous Mrs Sedley, making the most of the comic side of the role too, the notebook and handbag providing simple but effective props. Pamela Helen Stephen was a youthful Auntie, whose two “nieces”, neatly vocalised by Malin Christensson and Elizabeth Cragg, were almost joined at the hip.
Mark Stone impressed as Ned Keene, catching the ambivalence of the apothecary well (he organises for Grimes to have the second apprentice and yet is participatory in the “Grimes is at his exercise” ensemble). Michael Colvin also made his mark as a wayward yet forceful Bob Boles.
The other protagonist of the opera is the chorus. London Voices was strong, especially in off-stage moments and in the culmination of the man-hunt in Act Three, though earlier on the singers lacked a degree of spontaneity that a seasoned opera chorus might have brought, evident as they were score-bound unlike the rest of the singers. The semi-staging and the lighting and indeed the cleverly indicative costuming deserve a mention. Keeping Grimes to the sides of the stage apron indicated his isolation from the community well, and the chorus and townsfolk were nicely individualised in terms of having ordinary dress. All in all a fascinating evening – those able to catch the reprise performance in London would be strongly advised to go.
Further performance in the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 28 September at 7 p.m.