Peter Grimes, Op.33 – Opera in a Prologue and three Acts to a libretto by Montague Slater after The Borough by George Crabbe
Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Erin Wall
Captain Balstrode – Roderick Williams
Auntie – Susan Bickley
Two Nieces – Hanna Husáhr & Vibeke Kristensen
Bob Boles – Robert Murray
Swallow – Neal Davies
Mrs Sedley – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Rev Horace Adams – James Gilchrist
Ned Keene – Marcus Farnsworth
Hobson – Barnaby Rea
John, Grimes’s apprentice – Samuel Winter
Bergen Philharmonic Choir; Edvard Grieg Kor; Royal Northern College of Music Chorus; Choir of Collegium Musicum
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 25-27 November 2019 in the Grieghallen, Bergen; Sea Interludes record 24 October 2019
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: October 2020
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5250 (2 SACDs)
Duration: 2 hours 19 minutes
Chandos’s recording of Britten’s ground-breaking opera never lets up. Stuart Skelton mines the role of George Crabbe’s holy-fool fisherman with unerring breadth and imagination; and Edward Gardner is in total command of the drama’s progress of human frailty and cruelty and of its passages of elemental grandeur. The recording was made during the run of three concert stagings (soloists off their scores and in costume).
Skelton first made his mark as Peter Grimes in David Alden’s 2009 English National Opera production, also with Gardner conducting. A decade later, his voice sounds marginally more effortful, and as a result even more inside the role. It may well turn out that Chandos has caught this great Australian tenor at the height of his powers – with the raw fury of Jon Vickers’s performance tempered by free-fall introspection and a canny, objective realisation of Grimes the outsider, in this World but not quite of it, a point decisively made from the Prologue onwards. And, inevitably, Grimes’s moments of visionary longing and hope recall Peter Pears’s superb retreats into a luminous softness that adds layers of detail and intensity. Whether Skelton deploys rhapsodic lyricism for “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home” or pulls out all the stops in the mad scene, he makes the abyss open beneath Grimes.
He has a formidable match in Erin Wall’s Ellen Orford, and the release of this recording is a fitting tribute to this lovely, generous singer who died on October 8 from cancer. Listen to Ellen’s confrontation with Grimes in Act Two to catch the Straussian warmth and scale of her artistry. She will be much missed.
The other singers are mainly a best-of-British, luxury line-up of Britten stylists. Roderick Williams is particularly fine as the old salt Balstrode who sees the point of Grimes but is powerless to help. Susan Bickley and Catherine Wyn-Rogers give incisive focus to no-nonsense Auntie and a corrosive Mrs Sedley, and the rest of the Borough mafia is vividly portrayed.
Gardner’s handling of detail and the bigger picture is marvellous, and the Bergen Philharmonic is on electrifying form. I value especially the way in which the Interludes have an almost mystical presence, and I also admire the discretion with which he and his players draw attention away from Britten’s more obviously precocious passages of orchestration. The range of this SACD recording is very wide and I was endlessly fiddling with the volume, either to hear or not to be deafened. The opening of the Passacaglia is super-quiet, and the chorus’s cries of “Peter Grimes!” are thrilling, then scaling down to ghostly sonic remnants. It only adds to the excitement of this unmissable release.