Britten: Peter Grimes

English National Opera

The Coliseum, London, 12 May 20094 stars

Peter GrimesPractically everyone is deranged in David Alden's new production of Britten's Peter Grimes for English National Opera. While it's hardly original to suggest that Grimes isn't quite there, mentally speaking, the weird behaviour of the rest of the Borough is something new, and here taken to an absolute extreme.

Auntie dresses as a man and has a lame foot, while her Nieces are dressed like schoolgirls and act with hardly a semblance of sanity most of the time, fetishising their toy dolls, wrapping themselves in the same overcoat almost like Siamese twins, and mimicking each other's actions in the most eerie fashion. The action is updated to the Second World War – the time of Britten's composition rather than Crabbe's original poem, The Borough – and though the society of the Suffolk village is conventionally presented as closed, the signs of war are apparent in the crazy behaviour of much of the community, in the absence of the young, and in Balstrode's physical damage (he has lost an arm, presumably in battle). When the Borough goes to hunt down Grimes in the final act, Union Jacks are suddenly wielded, as if to suggest that their mob mentality is justified by Queen and country.

Up to a point, it works very well. Alden's direction of the singers is totally immaculate: they act with a sense of purpose throughout, and the focus really is on the drama, without the slightest whiff of a stock operatic gesture. That's particularly impressive in the choral scenes, where the amount of detail and movement he achieves is astounding. At the opening, the chorus is at the back of the stage, half-submerged by a sharply-raised platform; later on, they turn on Grimes and all point their fingers at him, while the raising of the Bible against him in the opening scene of Act 2 is another effective gesture. I found the second scene of Act 2 chilling in the way Grimes should be: again, a raked platform for Grimes' hut puts the drama literally on a knife's edge, and the flickering of a single light bulb makes the scene especially evocative, so that when the villagers come to spy on Grimes there's a brilliantly spooky atmosphere.

Peter GrimesBut it's a shame that some things are taken to excess. Alden spoils his impeccable stagecraft with some perverse interpretative gestures. And I don't think the portrayal of either Ellen Orford or particularly Balstrode is coherently worked out. When Ellen delivers the new apprentice, there is almost a sense that she is consciously sending the boy to his death with Grimes so that the latter's fate can also be sealed to rid the Borough of his presence, so that she's clearly demonised sometimes, yet the text constantly makes it clear that Ellen is on Grimes' side. Balstrode, meanwhile, seems to be too much in confrontation with Grimes in the first act, while defending him in other scenes. The grotesque aspects of the production do not appeal to me at all, either, be it the strange behaviour of Auntie and her Nieces, or the fancy dress party in the third act. Grimes' mad scene is beautifully staged against a grey skyscape, but I didn't like the remote positioning of Ellen and Balstrode at the sides of the stage at the very end: it makes them seem disengaged from what's going on, rather than active participants.

Peter GrimesSimilarly, although the final quartet of the first scene of Act 2 was moving, I thought Ellen's distant behaviour towards the apprentice when she discovers the scars Grimes has caused was totally incoherent with the text. The physical appearance of the Boar's Head was rather cluttered and less atmospheric than several other productions I've seen, but when the back of the roof lifted to reveal the storm raging outside, the effect was dramatic. In other words, the staging was frustrating one minute and probingly original the next.

It is, however, a splendid night at the theatre, and even if the production weren't so successful on the whole, it would be worth the trip to the Coliseum just for Stuart Skelton's performance as Grimes. His is truly one of the finest portrayals of any role I have ever seen. Alone amongst the cast, Skelton's performance is complete. On the one hand, he conveys Grimes' innocence whilst also making it clear that he's mentally disturbed, while on the other, the amount of colour he brings to his singing is remarkable. He's also alone, I feel, in fully achieving a Brittenesque style of singing. The finest Britten singers use vibrato in an expressive way that can be quite special, as Skelton shows, but too often the singing here was full-on and did not embrace the neo-Classical aspect of the music. Skelton, however, responds to the text on the most minute level, creating different sounds even within a single note: he makes the part very much his own.

Amanda Roocroft's acting as Ellen Orford was heart-rending and she sang with full commitment, but the line wasn't quite as easy or nuanced as some interpreters achieve in the part. On the other hand, Gerald Finley sang with marvellous power in the first act, and it's a shame that the director's intervention had such a detrimental effect on his character. Not so Felicity Palmer, who relished the Miss Marple-ish characterisation given to her by Alden and always made a huge impact when she was on the stage.

Peter GrimesLeigh Melrose's Ned Keene, Matthew Best's Swallow, Michael Colvin's Bob Boles and Rebecca de Pont Davies's Auntie were all fine examples of ensemble singing – indeed, the company very much inhabited the opera as an ensemble who gelled with one another. The ENO Chorus hasn't sounded in such impressively strong voice in a long time, and for them it was a wholly successful evening: the choral numbers were uniformly rousing and exciting, which helped to make Alden's interpretation more workable.

ENO Music Director Edward Gardner has seldom produced such drive and visceral energy from his orchestra and chorus, and on those grounds alone the evening was a success. The commitment and thrust was a pleasure to witness, and this was without doubt the finest production of ENO's season so far. However, on an ultra-critical level I can't help but feel that the chilling quality of the music was not achieved during a large percentage of the evening: Gardner is good at the modernity and spikiness, but does not draw the colour, the unique musical tinta, from some of the voices and instruments that a number of other conductors – most recently in London, Colin Davis and Antonio Pappano – have shown can be obtained from this amazing score. Perhaps the reason is that Gardner, like Alden, does not see this as an opera of the sea and seeks for something more universally exciting but less distinctive.

But no matter: this is an all-out triumph for ENO, and the communal feeling of wanting to grip the audience ultimately succeeds.

By Dominic McHugh

Photos: Clive Barda

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Felicity PalmerRelated articles:

Interview: Felicity Palmer on returning to ENO for this production
Interview: Amanda Roocroft, who plays Ellen in this prodution
Review: Opera North's Peter Grimes
News: ENO announces 2009-10 season