Opera North at Sadler’s Wells – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes – An opera in a prologue and three acts to a libretto by Montagu Slater after George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”

Peter Grimes – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Ellen Orford – Giselle Allen
Captain Balstrode – Christopher Purves
Auntie – Yvonne Howard
Niece 1 – Amy Freston
Niece 2 – Claire Booth
Bob Boles – Alan Oke
Swallow – Richard Angas
Mrs Sedley – Ethna Robinson
Reverend Horace Adams – Nigel Robson
Ned Keene – Roderick Williams
Hobson – Stephen Richardson
John – Aaron Eastwood
Doctor – Dominic Burns

Chorus & Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes

Phyllida Lloyd – Director
Anthony Ward – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 23 November, 2006
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

A keen sense of anticipation for Opera North’s “Peter Grimes” – now arriving in London for presentation at the theatre where it had its resoundingly successful premiere on 7 June 1945. The work now has a firm hold in the repertory of most opera houses, and so it’s perhaps harder for the piece to make the impact of the new.

What is evident from the very start is that this is a true company ensemble, delivering a piece that offers opportunity for all – chorus and orchestra included. The latter, under Richard Farnes, was on marvellous form, producing a huge dynamic range and making one feel the various moods of weather and water throughout. The surge and swirl of the sea, and pull of the tide, all so cunningly orchestrated by Britten, were here given their due. The percussion and woodwinds dripped appropriately, and the strings, in turns, were lush and then menacing. The moments of violence were as boldly voiced as I’ve ever heard. The overall bleakness came through in the moments of stillness and silence, of which there were many, and the direction managed to keep the attention throughout.

The chorus was also on fine form. From the chattering and whispering in the courtroom and after the Sunday morning church service to the unleashed ferocity of the manhunt, the singers delivered their parts with impressive clarity of words and huge commitment – an integral part of the production creating a claustrophobic and dangerously inward-looking community. I liked the way that all the principals, with the exception of Grimes and his apprentice, were so much part of the general throng and they just appeared to suddenly come into relief; it was as if there could have been lots of other interesting people, all with stories to tell.

Phyllida Lloyd has certainly got some fine acting out of the troupe. Yvonne Howard’s Auntie, fruitily sung, was a more dominant hostess than most, and Alan Oke deserves praise for making Bob Boles more than just ranting. He was decidedly creepy and definitely not far from the very margins of the society. Nigel Robson was a strong presence as Horace Adams, a priest evidently placed beyond his ministerial capabilities. Even the silent Doctor made an impact. Vocally all were on fine form – from the brightly voiced nieces, Stephen Richardson’s booming and bluff Hobson, to Roderick Williams’s suavely voiced Ned Keene (performing with his arm in a sling), right down to the wiry-voiced and dangerously opium-addicted and bitter Mrs Sedley of Ethna Robinson.

Balstrode and Ellen Orford offer their singers some great music and room for vocal characterisation. Christopher Purves as Balstrode was younger than many, and a rock-solid and dark-voiced man of the sea. As always with him every word was audible and he is a very convincing actor, who makes much of economy of movement. The potential voice of reason in the community, he goes largely unheard, even by Grimes. Giselle Allen’s Ellen was also very touching, and her emotional interplay with Grimes was well charted. More of a mother figure or school-teacher with him at times I liked the way she gently soothed him with a minimum of touch – from which he flinched initially. She also sang very well, and with much intensity, but alone of the principals seemed less adept at getting all her words across. It must be said this was particularly in the high reaches of the role and she is certainly not the first soprano to have this difficulty, and perhaps Britten’s word-setting is partially to blame.

Towering above all was the performance of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts in the title role. From his first ‘flash-forward’ appearance as the dead body of Grimes is washed up on the shore before the music even started to his final suicidal walk towards the sea this was an extraordinarily committed portrayal. Big and stocky of stature in the way of Vickers and Heppner in the role before him, he is very much the sailor in appearance. But what he really brought to the role in the way that those famous predecessors didn’t was a vulnerability as well as tragedy. This Grimes is childlike, unable to articulate feelings and emotions in a mature way and evidently subject to panic attacks, and to hitting out blindly when cornered or pressured; hence his violent lashing out at Ellen when she insistently mentions “their” failure.

Another innovation is the portrayal of the Grimes’s relationship with his apprentice John (marvellously played by Aaron Eastwood), which is evidently a relationship of trust. That this condemned the boy to be an outsider was vividly portrayed in the opening moments of Act Two when his was pointedly excluded from the other children’s games. The most moving moment was Grimes’s embrace of the dead body of the apprentice on the seashore and then his almost sacrificial offering of it to the sea. Superb acting! This went in tandem with some pretty powerful singing too. Lloyd-Roberts perhaps does not have the most mellifluous voice, but its plangent quality and his ability to sing quietly and with intensity added to his triumph. His “Great bear and Pleiades” solo was truly introspective.

Mention should be made of the stark but effective designs of Anthony Ward in creation of the overall atmosphere of this particular production, one that should definitely be seen and revived – but perhaps not too often for it would be sad if its impact lessened with familiarity.

  • A further London performance of “Peter Grimes” on 25 November, and two in Newcastle upon Tyne on 29 November & 1 December
  • Sadler’s Wells
  • Opera North

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