English National Opera – Britten’s Peter Grimes – with Gwyn Hughes Jones, Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Bailey; directed by David Alden; conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Peter Grimes – Opera in a Prologue and Three Acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough [sung in English, with English surtitles]

Peter Grimes – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Ellen Orford – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Balstrode – Simon Bailey
Auntie – Christine Rice
Swallow – Clive Bayley
Ned Keene – Alex Otterburn
Bob Boles – John Findon
Mrs Sedley – Anne-Marie Owens
Hobson – David Soar
Reverend Horace Adams – Ronald Samm
First Niece – Cleo Lee-McGowan
Second Niece – Ava Dodd
John, Grimes’s apprentice – William Biletsky [silent role]

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins

David Alden – Director
Paul Steinberg – Set Designer
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – Costume Designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting Designer
Gary James – Revival Lighting Designer
Maxine Braham – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 21 September, 2023
Venue: The Coliseum, London

This second revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes for English National Opera (first seen in 2009) comes perhaps unfortunately soon after Deborah Warner’s trenchant new one for the Royal Opera House which was seen in 2022 (such was the latter’s impact that it made this Britten sceptic appreciate the power of this overlong opera). The basic atmosphere of Alden’s setting is suitably bleak – even if the washed-out turquoise colour of much of it is like a drab municipal swimming pool or baths, and the rows of old sofas enclosing three sides of a bare space for the last scene of Act One resembles more the common room of an old people’s home than a pub. The claustrophobia of Grimes’s hut tellingly presses in on him and his apprentice; the ladder leading out of it, which looks like an enticing escape to freedom, underlines the latter’s tragedy when he falls to his death from it because the rope that is supposed to secure him is not fastened. Compared with Warner’s interpretation, however, Alden’s vision otherwise seems rather vapid now. The 1940s setting conveniently taps into the increasing, inexplicable nostalgia of the present time for that era (witness the number of TV serials and plays set there) but surely offers little insight into that period (or ours for that matter) in terms of the opera’s themes, other than to confirm any received notions about a comparative lack of tolerance for nonconformity at that time. 

Curiously the production actually tends to dispel the opera’s central theme of confrontation between an intolerant, unforgiving society and an unconventional, lovely individual. The chorus generally assemble as a block and face the audience, as though haranguing us. It seems too knowing and contrived as a theatrical manoeuvre, and choral passages thereby become static, musical set pieces, instead of developing as a dramatic engagement with the action of the narrative and its characters. Act One’s pub scene is a prime example: once Grimes has sung his strange song ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’, he quickly disappears (dutifully returning a few minutes later to deliver his subsequent passage). When the pub-goers then start their round ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ it feels perfunctory, not the tense and awkward brushing away of Grimes’s utterance which has unsettled them. Similarly, when the villagers repeatedly howl “Grimes” in Act Three after the death of his latest apprentice – again, out to us, rather than into the action itself – they brandish Union flags in a clunky, throwaway gesture, presumably to denote their slavish adherence to some handed-down, exclusive ideology, just as they had waved their prayer books menacingly earlier. These are simplistic, artificial signals which don’t generate tension from within the drama.

Confrontation also fails to register as well as it might since Grimes seems more like a straightforward bully in demeanour, given the way he treats Ellen and his apprentice, inciting less sympathy for him as a result. That is underlined by Gwyn Hughes Jones’s sounding musically more confident – or at least outwardly assertive – than Grimes is usually depicted, not really riven here by doubt or torment. There is a slight growl in his voice, and ‘Now the Great Bear’ lies a little uncomfortably above his range, as there is a slight but perceptible swoop up to the note at the beginning of each subphrase (intoned on the same pitch).

Elizabeth Llewellyn rightly brings a ray of light amid the gloom as she breaks out into a powerful sweep on the bright Sunday morning at the beginning of Act Two, cultivating that rare thing in this opera, a sustained vocal melody. Elsewhere there is much warmth, even voluptuousness in her singing, providing the one audible strand of humanity in the work. Simon Bailey is a serviceable, if fairly characterless, Balstrode so that he hardly renders his speeches in the inn as anything more than the platitudes of a pub bore. Other parts are well delivered if not outstandingly. 

Martin Brabbins leads a perfectly decent account of the score with the ENO Orchestra, and there is no doubting the musical force of the Chorus, however uninvolving the stage craft the production puts them to. The Orchestra come to life better in the sequences that have come to be known as the ‘Sea Interludes’, doubtless more seasoned in these sections than the rest of the work. That otherwise would certainly pass muster and make a solid impression; but again, compared with Sir Mark Elder’s searingly detailed survey for ROH last year, the performance sounds less persuasively portentous. It’s perhaps invidious to compare productions, but the close proximity of these two probably makes it inevitable, and the older now palls against the newer. 

Further performances to 11 October

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