Few operatic events are bound to gain as much press attention as a new production of Britten's Peter Grimes. American director David Alden's dark, nightmarish production has elicited many of the the most passionately positive responses the British press has seen in a long time. And while the superb quality of execution (both on stage and in the pit) remains unquestioned, the radical re-invention of the imagery and characters of Britten's masterpiece inevitably attracted some controversy.
It is perhaps fair to say that an American director is going to be observed extremely closing when reworking such a staple of modern English repertoire. Yet David Alden, far from shying from the risks of a new production, jumped in both feet by creating something Andrew Clark from the Financial Times described as 'completely at odds with the work's performance tradition'. And as Clark rightly predicted, 'not everyone will approve of Alden's uninhibited assault on one of English opera's sacred cows'.
Indeed, The Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen mourns the drastic shift of the production away from the quaint English town that originally served as backdrop: 'the humanity and subtlety are drained away, leaving a parade of grotesques out of German Expressionism'. The lack of strong English characterization also disturbed The Stage's George Hall, who detected a lack of a 'strong sense of an English fishing village' in Paul Steinberg's stage setting. Rupert Christiansen's perplexity also stems from deeper concerns about the production's deliberate avoidance of the dark undercurrents of the tale, such as the reference child abuse: '[the] black-and-white scenario which lets the violent abuse of children off the hook'.
Yet the production has a larger score of enthused defenders. For The Times' Richard Morrison, the time-displacement of the context from early 19th century to the 1940's recalls the years in which the opera was indeed premiered at the ENO, thus creating a strange, and clever game of mirrors: 'this chronically insular, hypocritical, prejudiced and lunatic community is Britain itself'.
Praise was also lavished on lighting designer Adam Silverman: 'the whole opera is brilliantly lit', writes Keith McDonnell from MusicOMH, while Melanie Eskenazi from The Classical Source sees Silverman's lighting as 'highly atmospheric, often providing the sense of place that the sets lack'.
Characterization was also noted as a high-point, with costume-designer Brigitte Reuffenstuel receiving more than a positive note for her expert characterization of the weird 1940's townspeople populating the stage.
Once we start reviewing the responses to the musical performance, a more united front of unreserved admiration is immediately perceivable. The Telegraph wrote about the 'tremendous sinew and sureness' of his performance. Indeed, Skelton was heard as a combination of the good qualities of his most illustrious predecessors as Peter Grimes: 'If ever a singing actor combined the force of a Jon Vickers with the crazed inwardness of Pears, it is [Stuart Skelton]', writes Edward Seckerson for The Independent; and the Daily Mail's David Gillard described Skelton as 'pure heldentenor, a maritime Siegfried'. Supporting cast also received countless compliments, starting from Amanda Roocroft - 'best of the principals' - in The Stage's opinion.
The Times' appreciation of Roocroft was somewhat adumbrated by her slightly unpolished vocal delivery, which was also picked up by The Classical Source, who mentioned 'a few less-than-perfect notes' before adding, however that 'this is an Ellen to treasure'. Rebecca da Pont Davies also received praise for her role as Auntie, the landlady of the local pub, 'the Boar'. Rupert Christiansen from The Telegraph was especially taken: 'Rebecca de Pont Davies almost steals the show with her electrifyingly sinister Auntie'.
With Edward Gardner, and the Chorus and Orchestra of the ENO under his baton, we reach a homogeneous score of adoring reviews such as I hardly knew possible. The Times' comment that 'Edward Gardner gets wonderfully detailed playing from the ENO orchestra, and keeps ensembles razor-sharp' is echoed by the raving tone of the Financial Times: 'Gardner gets better and better: here he picks up all the shrill screams that go with the score's Bergian avant-gardisms, as well as its violent beauty and aching heart'. The Independent writes of the ENO Chorus as 'overwhelming' and salutes Gardner's 'tremendous passion'. These are only about half of the glowing reviews Gardner and his musicians elicited from the press, but you get the idea.
So, in conclusion, it seems that this Peter Grimes has everything one could wish for, including its controversial production, which is visceral, disturbing and arresting - if not in accordance to Britten's original vision. And with performances as widely acclaimed as these, you know you are in for a real treat. Peter Grimes is on at the London Coliseum until 30 May.
Photo Credits: Clive Barda
Have your say: discuss this article in our Forum.