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Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]
31 Jan 2014

Peter Grimes, ENO

For many years, the shadow of Peter Pears hovered at the shoulder of any tenor who dared to offer their own reading of Britten’s equivocal fisherman. But, as the aural memories of Pears’ visionary dreamer soften — in the opera house, at least, if not on recordings — modern singers are increasingly released from the ghostly echoes of the past.

Peter Grimes, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes

Photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera


However, this revival of David Alden’s exceptional 2009 production of Peter Grimes at ENO makes one wonder if, in future, tenors will be similarly measured against Stuart Skelton’s heart-rending Peter Grimes, for the Australian tenor here re-visits a role which in recent years he has increasingly made his own.

The question has so often been: visionary dreamer or brutal realist? Skelton’s Peter Grimes is both. He makes the ruthless fisherman’s dreams seem rational and attainable, and yet, simultaneously, poignantly deluded, forever to remain tauntingly out of reach. This Grimes is a divided man: ruthless and defiant, and tragically vulnerable. Determined to challenge and transcend the monstrous hypocrisy of the ludicrous but venomous inhabitants of The Borough, he remains pitifully subject to their warped morality and materialism. Skelton’s Grimes has a poignant humanity which is magnified by the ugly depravity of the Borough’s cast of grotesques.

Alden updates George Crabbe’s eighteenth-century milieu to the time of the opera’s composition — Britten made the first sketches of the opera aboard the Axel Johnson liner as he headed back to Britain in 1942, having spent three years in America, to the disapproval of many in his homeland. And, as the back wall tilts to spew the parade of outlandish odd-balls into the court-room, one is reminded of other, more recent oppressive, maniacal regimes.

A severe, sharply angled barn (set design by Paul Steinberg) serves as court room, workplace and public house, its sloping walls swivelling to transform into shore-side promenade, storm-struck exterior and Grimes’s cliff-top hut.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Rebecca de Pont Daves, Mary Bevan, Elza ven den Heever, Rhian Lois (c) Robert Workman.pngRebecca de Pont Daves as Auntie, Mary Bevan as Second Niece, Elza ven den Heever as Ellen Orford and Rhian Lois as First Niece

Despite the nautical buoy which looms at the right of the stage, some might lament the absence a tangible sea — the providential force in the lives of the community, both provider and destroyer. However, Adam Silverman’s terrific lighting renders the shimmers and storms of the ocean ever-present; at times the sheen of sun on water makes the back-stage gleam, the boundaries between land and ocean dangerously ambiguous. As the sea tempest approaches the coast, the radiance which filters through the tall windows of the wharf, as the day’s catch is cleaned and gutted, assumes first a fragile hint of grey and then a lowering dark intensity, revealing the vulnerability of those whose lives depend upon the whims of an indifferent natural world. When the lightning eventually releases its electric might, there is a sense of both welcome release and defenceless exposure.

Silverman’s illuminating glare is like a beam of truth. There is no hiding the ugly bruise which stains the apprentice’s shoulder, or the community’s vicious sadism. Particularly effective are the dark, towering silhouettes which hover in the background, shadows which suggest other lives and other selves — paths which might be taken but which remain forever out of reach. Thus, as Ellen urges Grimes’s young apprentice to enjoy the warm Sunday morning sunshine, they are taunted by both the Borough’s hypocritical hymn-singing and their own looming profiles. Nowhere is this more affecting that in Grimes’s Act 2 ‘mad scene’, where Skelton’s hulking contour forms multiple distant yet threatening doppelgängers, a symbol of his fractured self, taunting the disintegrating fisherman with past deeds and abandoned hopes. When Skelton shuffles off at the close, to take his boat on one last, fatal mission, one feels that he is escaping from himself as much as fleeing from the merciless Borough posse.

Skelton’s Grimes combines both gentleness and aggression, and he seems uneasy with either,; he is comfortable only when at work, fishing net in hand, at peace only when cradled by the ocean’s embrace. At the end of the Prologue duet, sung tenderly and with absolute technical assurance by Skelton and Elza Van den Heever (as Ellen Orford), the fisherman reaches out to take Ellen’s hand, before brusquely shoving her aside, unable to cast off his self-conscious pride, accept her affection and expose himself to love’s uncertainties.

Emotionally illiterate, this Grimes is similarly unaware of his physical might. Skelton welcomes the new apprentice who will help him ‘fish the sea dry’ and earn sufficient wealth to conquer the Borough’s scorn; but as he hoists the boy aloft, whirling him back to his hut, it is clear that he does not appreciate the danger that his muscular power and verbal suppression pose to the child. The apprentice — whose silent suffering is sensitively played by Timothy Kirrage — cowers in the bare hut in soundless misery and terror; but, his cliff-top fall is unequivocally an accident. As the rope which supports the boy snakes through Grimes’s fingers, his distress is palpable and it is concern, as well as the Borough’s hunting cries, that sends him scurrying desperately after the boy. When the mob arrive they find an empty shack and leave. But then, a stark, eerie vertical light illumines the cliff down which the boy has tumbled, at the bottom of which Grimes hunches, cradling the dead child in his arms. It is a heart-breaking moment. The villagers have sneered at Grimes — ‘call that a home’ — at end of Act 1; but, it is only home he knows and can offer.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Felicity Palmer (c) Robert Workman.pngFelicity Palmer as Mrs Sedley

Skelton squeezes every emotion from Britten’s score. ‘What harbour shelters peace?’ is both yearning and despairing, as Grimes’s hopes turn to angry desolation. At the conclusion of Act 1, he furiously ropes himself to the wall to confront the coming maelstrom. Like Lear, out-facing the raging winds and drenching downpour, Grimes both defies and invites the storm. Grimes and the storm are as one; as Balstrode says, ‘This storm is useful, you can speak your mind … There is grandeur in a gale of wind to free confession, set a conscience free’.

Yet, when Grimes attempts to share his vision with those sheltering in Auntie’s tavern, he is met with incredulity, confusion and disdain. Skelton’s voice was almost inaudible at the start of ‘Great Bear and Pleiades’, but the fragility possessed great presence, each repeated E gaining in intensity and assuming a new hue, before fading with the falling melody into poignant stillness — the arc of the phrases like the eternal ebb and flow of the waves, or the transient glimmer of a distant star. Out-voiced by the pub-goers’ shanty, ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, Skelton lumbers despairingly among the raucous revellers, a lone soul among the massed ranks of oppression and repression.

But, this is no one-man show; the cast is uniformly strong. While some of the principals are returning to re-visit their roles from 2009, two newcomers to the production play Grimes’s confidantes, Ellen Orford and Balstrode. Iain Paterson’s Balstrode is an imposing stage presence. Commanding of voice, and with characteristically excellent diction, Paterson is by turns a noble, authoritative figure among the Borough, then a weary sea-dog, limping stoically, seemingly worn down by Grimes’s own disaffection. Balstrode is not spared Grimes’s aggression, and Paterson uses his dark-toned, smooth bass-baritone to convey the old sailor’s shock and disappointment.

South African Elza van den Heever is superb as Ellen, her glowing mezzo soprano expressing both compassion and resigned realism. Van den Heever began tenderly, but later demonstrated considerable dramatic power and emotional sincerity. The meditative trio which closes Act 2 Scene 1, for Ellen, Auntie and the two Nieces, was wonderfully moving, a moment of repose and respite from the braying calls of the Borough, as the villagers march out, seeking Grimes, to the vicious beat of Hobson’s drum.

Rebecca de Pont Davies was a charismatic Auntie, mischievously swapping pin-striped suit for a floor-length sabre, the warmth of her middle register charming pub-goers and audience alike. As her Nieces, ENO Harewood Artists Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan brought a sparkling vocal brightness to their rather dark portrayal with its lingering suggestions of child abuse and exploitation.

Leigh Melrose reprised his role as Ned Keene, a pill-pushing, mustard-suited spiv, singing with compelling clarity; Matthew Best returned to the role of Swallow, his forceful pronouncements in the opening court scene drawing us immediately into the conflict. Felicity Palmer conveyed both the preposterousness and pathos of Mrs Sedley, while the Bob Boles of Michael Colvin was convincingly and absurdly sanctimonious.

ENO Peter Grimes 2014, Matthew Best, Rhian Lois, Leigh Melrose (c) Robert Workman.pngMatthew Best as Swallow, Rhian Lois as First Niece and Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene

The ENO chorus was on excellent form too; after a slightly untidy start in the Prologue, the precision of the ensemble was impressive in the subsequent set-pieces, and the power of their massed voices was chillingly resonant in the climactic posse scene.

Guiding all with characteristic assurance and powerful dramatic drive, conductor Edward Gardner yet again demonstrated an innate appreciation of Britten’s musico-dramatic structure and idiom. In the first of the instrumental interludes, the crystalline etching of flute, clarinet, violins, violas and harp alternated with majestic, dissonant surges from the timpani and brass; in the storm interlude the profound hammering of timpani and pizzicato double bass exploded beneath the chromatic whirling above.

My only doubt about Gardner’s authoritative reading concerns some of the tempi, which were often daringly slow, especially in the final act. The pauses between the posse’s hysterical cries, ‘Peter Grimes!’, were so extended that there was a risk of the tension breaking. Similarly, Skelton’s final monologue was audaciously drawn out; certainly, Grimes’s mental and physical dissolution was conveyed, but perhaps some of his self-consuming bitterness and fury was lost.

And, I’m not sure that the ending captures entirely the right note. In the last scene of the opera, Britten instructs that the women of the Borough should carry bundles of fishing nets down to the shore, as they sing of ‘the cold beginning of another day’. The implication is that, as Swallow spies ‘a boat, sinking out at sea’, the fisher-folk refuse to recognise their role in the tragedy that has ensued, and remain indifferent to Grimes’s anguish and death, unconcernedly resuming the routines of daily life. However, Alden’s Borough do not refuse to acknowledge the terrible events they have instigated; rather, they face the audience, unmoving, slowly declaiming the final scalic arcs, as if Grimes’s death has drained them of their own life-force.

Alden’s Borough is suffocating and stultifying; the director offers no open vistas to dilute the poison of hypocritical self-righteousness which poisons its inhabitants, just tantalising glimpses of the freedom and expanse of the sea which will ultimately salve and bless Grimes. Although the transvestism and sexual perversities of the Moot Hall party are somewhat anachronistic, they are a powerful reminder of the self-destructive force of perverted moralising. And, of the fragile defences of those who resist, who dare to be different, dare to dream.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Peter Grimes, Stuart Skelton; Ellen Orford, Elza van den Heever, Captain Balstrode, Iain Paterson; Auntie, Rebecca de Pont Davies; First niece, Rhian Lois; Second niece, Mary Bevan; Bob Boles, Michael Colvin; Swallow, Matthew Best; Mrs Sedley, Felicity Palmer; Reverend Horace Adams, Timothy Robinson; Ned Keene, Leigh Melrose; Hobson, Matthew Trevino; Apprentice, Timothy Kirrage; Doctor Crabbe, Ben Craze; Conductor, Edward Gardner; Director, David Alden; Assistant Director, Ian Rutherford; Set Designer, Paul Steinberg; Costume Director, Brigitte Reifenstuel; Movement Director, Maxine Braham; Lighting Designer, Adam Silverman; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Wednesday 29th January 2014.

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