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Peter Grimes (Stuart Skelton) and Ellen Orford (Amanda Roocroft) [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera]
13 May 2009

Peter Grimes — English National Opera, London Coliseum

In David Alden’s extraordinary new staging of Britten’s masterpiece, with sets by Paul Steinberg, the Borough is populated by stylised grotesques, a clever twist on the opera’s existing ‘Little England’ character stereotypes.

Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton; Ellen Orford: Amanda Roocroft; Captain Balstrode: Gerald Finley; Auntie: Rebecca de Pont Davies; Swallow: Matthew Best; Ned Keene: Leigh Melrose; Bob Boles: Michael Colvin; Mrs Sedley: Felicity Palmer; First Niece: Gillian Ramm; Second Niece: Mairéad Buicke; Hobson: Darren Jeffery; Reverend Horace Adams: Stuart Kale; John, Grimes's apprenctice: Benny Gur. Conductor : Edward Gardner. Director : David Alden. Designer : Paul Steinberg. Costume Designer : Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting Designer : Adam Silverman. Choreographer : Maxine Braham.

Above: Peter Grimes (Stuart Skelton) and Ellen Orford (Amanda Roocroft)

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera


In one of the production’s creepiest moments, the big man-hunt chorus in the middle of Act 3 is accompanied by waving of miniature Union Jacks.

Everyone you focus on has a darker secret than the last. At the more normal end of the range are Felicity Palmer’s Miss Marple-esque Mrs Sedley and Leigh Melrose’s apparently speed-addicted Ned Keene. The most disturbing include Darren Jeffery’s Hobson, who appears to have a whole boy-killing factory of his own going on unnoticed right under everybody else’s noses. Weirdest of all are Auntie and the Nieces — Rebecca de Pont Davies as a club-footed cross-dresser with a pinstripe suit and walking cane, and Mairéad Buicke and Gillian Ramm as a pair of possessed zombie twins in identical school uniform and pigtails. The Nieces are the production’s only faintly jarring note, with their vacant and jerky choreography which makes them barely even recognisable as human beings, but if they have one dramatic function it’s giving a new layer of depravity to Bob Boles, Swallow and everybody else who shows a sexual interest in them. Perhaps they are the ultimate product of this diseased community.

Yes, it’s the norm here to be disturbed, deformed or damaged (even Balstrode, sung by the excellent Gerald Finley, is missing an arm — besides the costumes, this is the most obvious visual clue to the production’s 1940s setting, though Auntie seems a throwback to the 30s) and Peter and Ellen are seemingly the only complete and sane individuals among them. Although her even-temperedness and common sense make her stand out from her neighbours, Ellen is integrated into the community — a community where people do everything together, moving in swarms — but Grimes is a loner, and it is this and this alone which leads to his becoming the local scapegoat. By the end, they have poisoned him into madness, but at least he is able to escape through death. Ellen is the one who has to live with it all, and I dare say she fits right in with the rest of them after all she has been through. With Amanda Roocroft in the role, there are echoes of her recent, brilliant Jenufa here — a bright-natured, attractive young woman worn down through her experiences. At times her singing is shrill on top and her diction indifferent, but her character portrait is spot on, the relationship with Grimes filled with real tenderness.

The Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is as fine a Grimes as you could wish to hear, wielding both his large voice and burly physique with intelligence and subtlety. Emerging from the man-hunt and the subsequent pained calm of the final interlude, Alden’s staging of the mad scene is devastating in its simplicity: the surtitle screen and orchestra pit go dark, and Grimes is alone in the abyss beneath a grey and foggy sky. Skelton maximises the effect the solitude of the setting with a performance of heartbreaking vulnerability and emotional intensity.

peter_grimes006.gifPeter Grimes (Stuart Skelton); Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) (front rt); Bob Boles (Michael Colvin) (front rt in upturned chair); First Niece (Gillian Ramm) (lying down front nearest); Second Niece (Mairéad Buicke) (behind first neice)

As Grimes hears the drum-led procession approaching his hut — in a clear and chilling musical echo of his vision, moments earlier, of the first dead boy — he is distracted into letting go of the rope with which he is making safe John’s descent down the cliff. Thus the villagers become directly responsible both for the death of the apprentice and for Peter’s self-destruction as a result of it. It is a heart-stopping coup-de-theatre.

In the two years that Ed Gardner has been ENO’s Musical Director I don’t think he has ever drawn a better performance from the house orchestra than in this detailed but never fussy account of the score. The playing of the interludes was virtually faultless, with a particularly memorable brass timbre, the jazzy shape of the phrases in the Storm Interlude crafted so as to introduce the incongruous 1930s vintage of the inhabitants of the Boar. A number of remarkable and inventive Grimes stagings have been seen in London this decade, but musically, this is head and shoulders above the others. It is perhaps ENO’s finest musical achievement this decade.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

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