With most of the original cast of English National Opera's critically acclaimed production returning to the Royal Albert Hall to perform Britten's Peter Grimes for the BBC Proms, this was a performance of which much of the audience had high expectations. For the most part, these were met and, on occasion, exceeded.
To Britten himself, Peter Grimes represented “a subject very close to [his] own heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” The opera tells the story of a fisherman who finds himself in the witness box at an inquest into the death at sea of an apprentice. Although Grimes is advised never to take on a boy apprentice again, he does so, bringing John, a shy boy, out of the workhouse. Under the influence of Ellen Offord, Grimes is kinder to John, but the boy falls from the cliff by Grimes's house and dies. When the villagers get wind of this news, Mrs Sedley encourages them to pursue Grimes. With the images of apprentices past haunting him and turning him mad, he takes the only way out left to him: he sets out to sea until he is out of reach of help and sinks his own boat.
It is a powerful and emotional story, and Britten's highly evocative music matches its psychological thrills. The spatial constraints meant that there could be no theatre staging, and props were limited to chairs and a rope; however, the drama in the libretto and the music make Peter Grimes one of the more suitable operas to be staged in concert. There were just a few occasions when I wished that the images I had in my mind of the Borough, with its pub, the menacing villagers and the craggy shore, could have been validated by stage scenery. That said, there were moments of very clever direction which made the most of the Royal Albert Hall: particularly effective was the drummer leading the villagers (an enlarged ENO Chorus) off the stage in single file, as they headed off to investigate Peter Grimes's hut, and the villagers' perfectly synchronised hand gestures strongly conveyed the increasingly menacing, angry mob mentality that was building up. At the very end, Grimes wove through the sea of Prommers and 'sank' down the back stairs—even if that happening was predictable, being able to see his convincingly pained expression brought the emotion of the opera quite literally closer to the audience. Credit must go to Donna Stirrup, in charge of the concert staging of Peter Grimes, who made the most of a difficult task.
The singing was extraordinary, and, for once, the star of the show was in fact in the starring role: Stuart Skelton's Peter Grimes was faultless. A true Heldentenor, his voice was at times fearsome and raging, at other times buttery-soft and fragile; the combination of that and his excellent acting skills left several members of the audience overwhelmed. Indeed, when he reappeared on stage to deafening applause, he also seemed genuinely overwhelmed. Thanks to Dame Felicity Palmer, Mrs Sedley was portrayed as a dotty, handbag-wearing, meddling old bat—a bit like Miss Marple, but far better at gossiping than solving crimes. At the other end of the age range were the androgynously dressed Auntie (the landlady of the village pub), a role cooly sung by Rebecca de Pont Davies, and her Nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke), who came across as suitably whiny, particularly in 'From the gutter' and 'Assign your prettiness to me'. The latter gave Swallow, a lawyer, the chance to demonstrate his lecherous side, which singer Mark Richardson (replacing Matthew Best, who was unavailable) did comically. Iain Patterson was in fine voice as the authoritative Capt. Balstrode, and Amanda Roocroft did well, as Ellen Orford, not to give away the moments when she unwittingly enraged Peter Grimes, making them all the more shocking when they occurred.
The conductor, Edward Gardner, ran a tight ship: the ENO Orchestra played with total precision, and the chorus, having been prepared by Aidan Oliver, were equally as one. They faced a considerable choreographical challenge, but each and every singer remained unflappable. A thoroughly enjoyable evening, and an opera I am very tempted to go and see if ENO should reprise it once more.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Stuart Skelton and Ed Gardner © BBC / Chris Christodoulou