Opera North – 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 – Jonathan Summers
Auntie – Yvonne Howard
Niece 1 – Amy Freston
Niece 2 – Claire Booth
Bob Boles – Alan Oke
Swallow – Richard Angas
Mrs Sedley – Ethna Robinson
Rev. Horace Adams – Nigel Robson
Ned Keene – Paul Gibson
Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Dr Crabbe – David Llewellyn
John (second apprentice) – Aaron Eastwood

Chorus & Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes

Phyllida Lloyd – Director
Anthony Ward – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting design
Kate Flatt – Movement Director

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 28 February, 2008
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes and Aaron Eastwood as Grimes's apprentice John. ©Bill Cooper“Sadler’s Wells Theatre. This stop for ‘Peter Grimes’, the tale of the sadistic fisherman!” According to Peter Pears, that was the cry of the number 19 bus conductors during the momentous first run of Britten’s masterpiece in 1945. Difficult to imagine a new opera in 2008 penetrating the Zeitgeist in quite that fashion but it is equally difficult to put oneself in the mind of the audience at those sensational first performances, coming only a few weeks after VE (Victory in Europe) Day. No British composer since Purcell, some 250 years earlier, had created such a potent fusion of music and drama and the way was paved for the great flowering of British opera in the second half of the 20th-century that we now take for granted.

No-one aware of the work’s history could fail to experience a reverberation of those heady days in attending a modern-day performance of “Peter Grimes” at Sadler’s Wells. Certainly not when it is a revival of Opera North’s hugely successful, multi-award-winning 2006 production directed by Phyllida Lloyd, whose previous Opera North productions of “Albert Herring” and “Gloriana” have marked her out as an outstanding Britten interpreters.

Every rendition of “Peter Grimes” has to address the work’s self-germinating central difficulty, namely why do the librettist and the composer expect the audience to identify with a character who beats women, maltreats children and has few visible redeeming qualities. I overheard several people in the audience say just that during the two intervals. If Grimes’s dislocation from the community is a metaphor for Britten and Pears’s isolation as homosexuals in 1940s’ Britain, as is often asserted, what does it mean in terms of that metaphor that the character is inherently unsympathetic as well as the object of mindless hostility? And although the theme of child-abuse, which exercises us so much these days, makes the opera appear to leap out from the headlines of today’s tabloids, our sensibilities are much likelier to lead us to take the side of the helpless victim than to ascribe victim-hood to the perpetrator.

JeffreyLloyd tackles these issues head-on. The mob-mentality driving the hue and cry that precipitates Grimes’s breakdown and suicide is not the exclusive preserve of the adults. It is also on display when a group of children-at-play bullies the second apprentice outside the church, a detail not to be found in Montagu Slater’s libretto. Ambiguity is everywhere. The homogenisation of the community, which cannot tolerate difference, can also be a benign force, glimpsed in the shared activity of fishing, the conviviality of the local pub, and the communal Saturday-night dance. Likewise even the Borough characters, often portrayed as bigoted or villainous ciphers – Bob Boles, Mrs Sedley –, are allowed to show a human face.

Of course these concerns play out above all in the portrayal of Grimes himself and here Lloyd’s direction and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s performance are at one. Peter Pears’s creation of the role, preserved in the famous Decca recording under the composer’s direction, positioned Grimes as a kind of luminous visionary with anger issues. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jon Vickers’s interpretation (said to be detested by Britten and Pears) had Grimes as an uncouth psychopath. Lloyd-Roberts pitches in at around the halfway mark between these. The visionary element is certainly revealed in his (literally) show-stopping aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ in Act One/Scene 2 and the radiant ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’ in Grimes’s hut in the second act (both of these were rapturously delivered by Lloyd-Roberts). It is also shown in the almost-loving tenderness with which Grimes holds the body of the dead apprentice, mimed over the ‘Moonlight Interlude’ that opens the third act. On the other hand Lloyd-Roberts couched his acting style in the body language of someone with mental-health issues, as if the development of Grimes’s mental faculties had lagged dangerously behind that of his powerful physique.

L-R: Claire Booth as Niece 2, Yvonne Howard as Auntie, Amy Freston as Niece 1, Alan Oke as Bob Boles. ©Bill CooperThe production partakes very much of the ‘maximum use of minimal props’ style that we are now so familiar with, using little more than a fishing net and some wooden palettes. On the whole this works very well in homing-in on the essence of the drama (although call me old-fashioned but I do like to see a bar and a few hand-pumps in the Boar). The net doubled as the Boar in the first scene and the palettes configured into the Moot Hall for the dance scene (most effectively, with only bobbing heads visible). Paule Constable’s lighting added immeasurably to the atmosphere, with bright focus and long shadows accentuating moments of high drama and a convincing murk for Grimes’s ‘mad scene’. I was taken throughout by the crowd movement (all credit to director Kate Flatt) which at times had the appearance of a Pina Bausch dance troupe. I loved the way Grimes’s sudden entrance to the Boar during the storm threw everyone to the floor, also the congregation singing hymns and responses with its back to the audience and the stage-front cries of “Peter Grimes” before the hunt-party disperses in the third act (those electrifying silences!).

My only reservation with the staging is Lloyd’s decision to ‘act out’ the Sea Interludes. I regretted this not so much for what was happening (although the ‘flashback’ to the building of Grimes’s hut mimed over the Act Two ‘Passacaglia’ seems an unnecessary interpolation and does not sit well with the score) but for the fact that anything was happening at all and which seems to betray a lack of faith in the expressive power of the music. One of the mainstays of Britten’s dramatic schema is that periodically the work folds in on itself and the music alone is allowed to crystallise the emotional import of the scene just gone or the scene to come. I wanted to focus on the wonderful music but kept getting distracted by bits of stage-business. One other slight niggle – I have no issue with bringing the dress-styles from the early-19th-century to the near-contemporary but it begs the question of why Mrs Sedley was addicted to laudanum (perhaps the name of a prescription-drug could have been substituted) and as far as I am aware the only remaining workhouses have been converted into flats.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes. ©Bill CooperVocally the evening was a triumph all round (I caught the second of the two London performances of the tour). Lloyd-Roberts’s voice had everything this daunting part requires, from the numinously lyrical to the gruff and brutish. His stamina held until just before the very end, when Grimes’s visionary final lines were possibly a little shakier than intended even for a man in extremis. This is one of the landmark interpretations of the role. It was complimented by a searing performance from Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford. She not only projected the vocal lines with great conviction and effortless delivery (the Embroidery aria was heart-stopping) but acted the role most persuasively. I believed in her every gesture.

The subsidiary roles were all carried with real aplomb by a stellar cast of British stalwarts. Jonathan Summers’s Balstrode stood out for the clarity of his delivery and the subtlety of the characterisation, something far deeper than the old salty dog often portrayed. Alan Oke, as well as being the winner of the Jarvis Cocker lookalike competition, stamped his authority on the sometimes thankless role of the Methodist Bob Boles, again a real characterisation, not a caricature. Richard Angas was an engagingly insufferable Swallow. I enjoyed Ethna Robinson’s Mrs Sedley, who despite the prompting of Britten’s spidery chromatics rose above the ‘grand guignol’ scheming traditionally attached to this role (but if I were directing I would have given her a copy of the Daily Mail to work with). Yvonne Howard was an imposing Auntie and Amy Freston and Claire Booth stole the roles of the ‘nieces’ (dressed in circa 1970s’ ‘early chav’) – the ‘ribaldries’ quartet in the second act had me floating out of my seat.

It is a cliché that the chorus is a character in its own right in this opera but it is also true. No praise could be too high for the contribution of Opera North’s chorus, the singers sounding fabulously well-drilled and made up in clarity what they lacked in numbers. The off-stage incantations in the final scene were wonderfully achieved.

In the pit, Richard Farnes drew playing of great distinction from the Opera North Orchestra, fierce and hard-hitting when called for but also lucid and gossamer elsewhere – the high violin line of the first Sea Interlude was quietly perfect. Other standout moments included the exquisite viola solo at the beginning of the ‘Passacaglia’, the silken accompaniment to Grimes’s ‘hut aria’ and the whole of the terrifying final Interlude. One small complaint – the off-stage dance-band was a little too distant, the contributions from the pit orchestra not so much overlaid the recessed dance music as obliterated it.

There is just one more chance to catch this marvellous production before the tour ends, on 5 March at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. In the time-honoured tradition of the closing line of any rave review, I advise any music-lover within striking distance to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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