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Benjamin Britten
28 Sep 2012

Peter Grimes BBC Prom 55

The ghost of Peter Pears may no longer hover in the wings, but in an age when ‘defining’ interpretations by the likes of Jon Vickers and Philip Langridge still linger powerfully in collective audience memories, Stuart Skelton’s interpretation of Crabbe’s problematic fisherman is assuming a striking individuality and impact.

Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Benjamin Britten


Somewhat paradoxically, in a Proms performance of the 2009 ENO production which could not be classed as either a concert performance or semi-staged, Skelton’s dramatically intelligent and musically affecting rendition crystallised Grimes’ essential ambiguity: the bitter, vicious anger which arises from Grimes’ frustration with his own failings and his community’s hypocritical lack of compassion, was as credible as his creative visions and lyric outpourings. When he gruffly clasped his shivering new apprentice boy (Jacob Mason-White), there was both concern and callousness in the impulsive gesture. Skelton’s Grimes is not brutal fisherman or visionary dreamer, rather a convincing amalgam of the self-doubts, ambitions, flaws and injustices of which all men are comprised.

With the ENO chorus seated behind the orchestra, there was little room at the front of the stage platform for any expansive physical movement or actions; however, Skelton’s unbridgeable separation from the Borough was evident from the first, alienation and hostility resonating from every ounce of his slouching bulk as he took his place in the dock to face the murder charged intoned gravely by Swallow (Mark Richardson, standing in at very short notice for the indisposed Matthew Best). The extremes of the limited stage area were well used. As he tied and re-tied his capstan rope while the Borough gossiped salaciously about Grimes’ brutal treatment of his apprentice boys, Skelton seemed to be compulsively and ceaselessly wringing his hands in outer defiance and inner despair at his alienation and impotence. And, recklessly setting off into the rough weather in pursuit of a profitable catch and ultimately Ellen Orford’s hand in marriage, Grimes’ descent beneath the stage seemed to indicate his existential loneliness and his final doomed fate.

And then there was the singing. Skelton employed the full panoply of shades and timbres to convey Grimes’ inherent contradictions and unpredictability. A slightly reticent tone in the Prologue, suggesting his annoyance and unwillingness to co-operate, blossomed at the end of the scene to reveal the sincerity of his love for Ellen and the fragility of his hopes for the future. Emotionally committed, holding nothing back, the occasional catch in Skelton’s voice exposed the burly fisherman’s essential vulnerability, and how close he was to breakdown; at other times, a rebellious, ringing bellow reminded the Borough of the defiance and danger he posed to their own hypocritical smugness and complacency.

But it was in the lyrical moments of self-revelation that Skelton’s Grimes really revealed the pain of his inner struggles. From the soaring aspirations of the Act 1 cry, “What harbour shelters peace?”, to the still beauty of Grimes’ mysterious appeal to the heavens in Act 2, “The Great Bear and Pleiades”, Skelton’s firm tone, now sweet and pure, then intimating the weight of his inner agony, ensured our sympathies lay with the outsider, whatever his suspected misdemeanours. The subtle rallentando and controlled legato line of the pianissimo scalic descent, “Who can turn skies back and begin again?”, was heartrending; and in the Act 3 ‘mad aria’, when haunted by echoes of the Borough’s accusations and his own regrets, Skelton managed to convey the disintegration of man whose psyche and future are fragmenting but also one who retains an inner core of self-reliance and insolence.

Although initially a little strident, Amanda Roocroft credibly portrayed Ellen Orford’s strong resistance to the Borough’s hypocrisy and oppressive mores, and a genuine feeling for her unlikely soul mate. An overly wide vibrato caused some initial problems (Skelton had to work hard to overcome these in the unaccompanied duet which closes the Prologue), but Roocroft relaxed into the role and summoned a warm tone and flexible lyricism, most notably at the opening of Act 2 when she first tries to reassure the young apprentice of Grimes’ essential goodness, and then pleads with Peter to cease from work and remember their dreams. Roocroft’s characterisation grew in strength as her voice became more focused, and by the end her rich sonority was a powerful indictment of the Borough’s insincerity.

Iain Paterson’s Balstrode was authoritative and compassionate, his diction superb, his melodic phrasing thoughtful and, like Skelton, Paterson economically clarified Balstrode’s ambiguous role in Grimes’ experience and fate: his resonant command - “We live and let live, and look-/ We keep our hands to ourselves” - immediately quelled the Borough’s scandal-mongering but their insistent repetitions of his reminder grew ever more menacing, laden with insinuations.

The minor portraits were deftly drawn, not without humour but generally avoiding caricature. As Mrs Sedley, Dame Felicity Palmer enunciated every word crisply and with self-justifying emphasis, just as one imagines this self-righteous laudanum addict would pontificate. But, Palmer injected another dimension, conveying Mrs Sedley’s essential isolation from the Borough whose moral position she assumes she articulates. Seated in the chorus, alone at the end of a role, during the Sunday Morning scene, she struck a rather pitiful figure. Stuart Kale’s Reverend made a strong impact, especially in this Sunday church scene: positioned in the middle of the chorus, he led the community in their devotions, their backs turned on the more genuine, human interaction between Ellen and Peter on the beach below, the disjuncture between stale, insensate convention and the difficult, painful but ultimately life-giving interactions of humanity laid bare.

Michael Colvin was a lively, rakish Bob Boles, while Leigh Melrose’s Ned Keene was fittingly dark and sinister. In the 2009 ENO production, Auntie and her two Nieces were, like many of the Borough, depicted as grotesques, but - excepting the dubious retention of the straggly rag dolls which the mature Niece’s incessantly trailed behind them, seeming joined at the hip - there were fewer exaggerations here. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ Auntie was a woman clearly in control of her customers and her own destiny; and, in their Act 3 duet, Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke sang with warmth and character.

Edward Gardner’s mastery of Britten’s orchestral and operatic language is undisputed, but even by his own lofty standards Gardner excelled. Confidently adopting a slow, spacious tempo in the first orchestra Interlude, he conjured both the stillness of the dawn and the massive apocalyptic forces latent beneath the shimmering surface, as surge after surge swelled to break the translucent glistenings of the high strings; the transition into the chorus which opens Act 1 was seamless, powerfully revealing the unbreakable bond between the sea and the community who depend upon the volatile waters for the lives and livelihoods. The Storm interlude was frighteningly ferocious, every nuance of orchestral colour summoned to evoke the elemental forces. In the Passacaglia, the texture thinned to allow the plaintive searchings of Amélie Roussel’s viola solo to sing soulfully of the apprentice’s melancholy and loneliness.

The ENO chorus were a little ragged and hesitant at first, their raised fists during the trial scene rather convincing and stilted. But, the ensemble settled and, despite a slight imbalance between men’s and women’s voices, they represented a fearsome and intransigent force for Grimes to defeat. At times involved in the action, as in the church scene mentioned above, elsewhere adopting a more distanced role as moral commentator, they were a telling reminder to us all of our own implication in the fates of individuals whom we judge and condemn.

From the first flick of his baton to summon the self-righteous mutterings of the bassoon, to the final shadowy whispers of the held strings and trombones, Gardner did not once allow the dramatic and emotional tension to slip. As the inevitable conclusion was reached, Skelton, commanded by a resolved Balstrode to scuttle his boat and escape the accusations which he could never answer, slipped reluctantly but resignedly away through the standing Promenaders. The full audience in the Albert Hall held its breath; and there was little emotional respite as the daily life of the Borough resumed, Grimes erased from their memories and their consciences by the majestic sea, which “rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep”.

Claire Seymour

Click here for cast and production information.

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