Best of Britten

 From Sunday Express – February 2 2014

Britten’s Peter Grimes*****

(English National Opera – Tickets: 020 7845 9300; £12-£99)

In its first revival at the Coliseum after an extensive tour, David Alden’s 2009  staging of Peter Grimes packs a devastating impact.  Having previously awarded it five stars, I really should give it five star plus this time.  In the title role, Stuart Skelton brings out even more strongly the inner torment of Grimes, added to which South African soprano Elza Van den Heever, making her London role debut, is born to sing Ellen Orford.

Peter Grimes, premiered in 1945 at Sadler’s Wells Opera, is based on George Crabbe’s 1810 poem The Borough, about a fishing town on the Suffolk coast – in fact Aldeburgh, where Britten spent the later years of his life.  Fisherman Grimes is the outsider subjected to gossip and slander after the death at sea of his apprentice.  The gossip comes to a head when he insists on hiring another apprentice, a motherless boy from the workhouse.  Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmistress who has befriended Grimes, promises to look after the boy, but Grimes’s obsession with making his fortune through fishing leads to the accidental death of his second apprentice.

Alden sets the opera around the time Britten wrote it, and there are hints of the second world war in Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costume designs.  There are influences too of German expressionist caricature.  He sees Grimes and Ellen Orford as real, relatively sane people marooned in a community of dysfunctional freaks.   The Boar pub’s landlady Auntie  (Rebecca de Pont Davies) is a crop-haired lesbian in pinstripes.  Her two “nieces” (Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan), dressed as schoolgirls, are traumatised by abuse.  Leigh Rose’s sleazy apothecary Ned Keene is hooked on the drugs he is peddling to Felicity Palmer’s hand-bag clutching Mrs Sedley.  I was intrigued to learn that a party of 20 psychiatrists have made a group booking to see the opera.  They will certainly find plenty to analyse.

Music Director Edward Gardner, conducting ENO orchestra, brings out the intensity of Britten’s score, and the choral climaxes are riveting.  Paul Steinberg’s designs suggest the claustrophobic atmosphere of small town life in the corrugated iron sheets and blank windows, opening out into exterior scenes of lowering skies and grey sea.   Against the bleakness, Alden sets stylised action in scenes such as the storm, where the roof of the pub is lifted by the gale to reveal contorted figures caught in the blast.  The townspeople’s cry of “O tide that waits for no man, Save our coast!” strikes a topical note.

Above all, the performance by leading Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton reveals deeper layers to the character of Grimes.  In the scene where he strikes Ellen for suggesting they have failed, the way he reaches out then recoils from her touch suggests a wounded being who has himself been abused.   Violence mingled with vulnerability is emphasised by Skelton’s bulky yet light-footed frame.

Finally on the empty beach, as he hears the townspeople’s approaching manhunt, Grimes appeals to his only supporters, Ellen and retired naval officer Captain Balstrode (Iain Paterson).   Ellen silently assents to Balstrode’s command, that Grimes must take his boat out to sea and sink it.

As he leaves to obey, his whole body radiates a sense of rejection, the final one in his life.  It is heart-breaking.

Peter Grimes is broadcast live as part of ENO Screen on Sunday 23 February, 3.00pm to 300 cinemas across UK and Ireland.