English National Opera – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes – opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater derived from the poem of George Crabbe

Peter Grimes – Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford – Amanda Roocroft
Captain Balstrode – Gerald Finley
Auntie – Rebecca de Pont Davies
First niece – Gillian Ramm
Second niece – Mairéad Buicke
Bob Boles – Michael Colvin
Swallow – Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley – Felicity Palmer
Rector – Stuart Kale
Ned Keene – Leigh Melrose
Hobson – Darren Jeffery
The Apprentice – Benny Gur
Dr Crabbe – Stefano Gressieux

Chorus & Orchestra of English NationalOpera
Edward Gardner

David Alden – Director
Paul Steinberg – Set designer
Brigitte Reiffenstuel – Costume designer
Adam Silverman – Lighting designer
Maxine Braham – Movement director

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 9 May, 2009
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Peter Grimes. English National Opera. ©Clive BardaBenjamin Britten said that his intention in “Peter Grimes” was “to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea”. English National Opera’s new production is not especially concerned either with that struggle or the pervading influence of the Suffolk seascape, but it triumphs because of its expert casting, glorious singing and incandescent musical direction.

As far as the characterisation of the protagonist is concerned, the spirit of Peter Pears very much guides David Alden’s hand – Pears wrote that “Grimes is not a hero nor is he an operatic villain … He is very much of an ordinary weak person who … offends against the conventional code.” Stuart Skelton embraces that definition both in his singing and his person – at once vulnerable and determined, he sings with touching purity of tone during the lyrical episodes such as ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ and with searing intensity during his outburst in the ‘Prologue’ and his ‘mad scene’ at the close.

Alden has said that Jon Vickers’s performance of the part was “the greatest thing one could ever see” – rightly so, no-one who saw Vickers’s Grimes can ever forget it. Nevertheless, Alden has still managed to elicit from Skelton a reading that respects the influence of his great predecessor yet also embraces touches of Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. This is not to say it is a derivative performance – far from it, since I don’t think I’ve heard ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ sung with such poignant fervour.

Amanda Roocroft as Ellen Orford & Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. ©Clive BardaEllen Orford is a part which Amanda Roocroft was born to sing, and her special warmth of tone which seems to say all we need to know about womanly tenderness, coupled with a steely determination, is finely used here. There were a few less than perfect notes, but this is an Ellen to treasure, very much in the Heather Harper mould. Her singing of ‘Embroidery in childhood’ was spellbinding.

Gerald Finley’s Balstrode, though still a work in progress, has most of what’s needed to become a signature part for him – he conveys all the character’s ambiguity in his bluff kindness and his sense of practicality; the storm scene in which he advises Grimes “Man – go and ask her / Without your booty / She’ll have you now” somehow managed to convey the sadness of Grimes’s situation in three lines. Norman Bailey could have no worthier successor.

Auntie was a far cry from the usual amply upholstered landlady, clucking away about her customers: Alden must have been inspired to create this louche individual by the presence of the superb singing-actress Rebecca de Pont Davies, who draws every eye to her, and she is costumed and made up as though Radclyffe Hall and Vita Sackville-West had got together to see which semi-masculine attire might be the most disturbing. It’s a concept that will need time to grow on me, but as always she sang superbly, abetted by her equally disquieting nieces who go from uniformed denizens of a rather jolly prep school to squeaking Lolitas.

Felicity Palmer seems to have cornered the market in barmy ‘femmes de nom’ and her portrayal of Mrs Sedley neatly follows on from her Marquise de Berkenfeld and her Kabanicha. Leigh Melrose reminds of the Weasel in Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre production of “The Wind in the Willows” such was his finely honed spivvery. Matthew Best provided ringing tone as Swallow, Stuart Kale was a lovably credible Rector, and Darren Jeffery a mesmerising and convincing Hobson – his scene with the drum was brilliantly done. Michael Colvin created an unusually bleak Bob Boles.

Gerald Finley as Captain Balstrode & Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes. ©Clive BardaEdward Gardner’s conducting was his finest hour: he coaxed wonderfully supple, lovingly phrased playing from the ENO Orchestra in the quieter passages, and amply tempestuous ones in the storm scenes. This was conducting and playing to match the singing, and in this case you can’t ask for better than that.

The production is replete with David Alden’s customarily expert personenregie, the scenes between Grimes and Ellen wonderfully naturalistic, and the huge chorus brilliantly managed to cut from mob-rule to shame. Adam Silverman’s lighting is highly atmospheric, often providing the sense of place that the sets lack, and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are elegantly conceived, from Ellen’s ‘tea dress’ to Mrs Sedley’s ratty old cardigan.

Paul Steinberg’s sets are sometimes angled towards cutting off much of the stage from those seated on the sides, and the ‘one board fits all’ concept doesn’t appeal – all that hard Formica-look reminds of the inexplicably bleak interiors of Jenůfa’s house. As for Grimes’s hut, its absolute nakedness made nonsense of the Rector’s telling comment “Here’s order. Here’s skill”. Yet the opening scene of Act Two is evocatively staged, Grimes’s detachment from reality achieved without posturing. Quite why we were sometimes asked to imagine some of the chorus as part of “Street Scene” I don’t know.

Never mind – this momentous staging is overwhelmingly moving. It is dedicated to choreographer Claire Glaskin, who died in a car accident at the end of the first week of rehearsals. She could not have a finer memorial.

  • Further performances on 11, 14, 18, 21 & 28 May at 7 p.m., and on 16, 23 & 30 May at 6
  • The performance of 21 May is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 11 July 2009
  • John Daszak takes the role of Grimes on 28 & 30 May
  • Box Office 0871 911 0200
  • English National Opera

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