Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).



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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):