David Alden’s highly acclaimed production of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, has returned to the Coliseum, more than four years after its debut there in 2009.
This work, written during World War II, is certainly the most popular of Britten’s operas and it is not hard to see why. The orchestral score is tonal, quite lush at times and with some fine lyrical passages, influenced by Richard Strauss and with occasional echoes of Verdi.
The plot is highly dramatic and holds the attention of the audience. Loosely based on a long poem by a local Suffolk poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), The Borough, it is set in a fishing community in the coastal town of Aldeburgh. Its timeless theme, as presented in the opera, is about the unequal confrontation between an individual misfit, here the central character – Peter Grimes – and a highly conformist community, which ends in tragedy. There are some autobiographical overtones here, Britten being a homosexual at a time when this lifestyle was proscribed, and a conscientious objector during the war to boot, although he achieved success and was showered with numerous accolades.
The production is brilliant and memorable. Firstly, the singing earns high marks. The mellifluous voice of Elza van den Heever in the role of Ellen Orford is outstanding, but also worthy of particular mention is Stuart Skelton in the leading role and Felicity Palmer as the Mrs Sedley, the mischievous busybody. Skelton gives a sterling performance of the E major aria ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’ that may be contrasted with its rendition by John Vickers on disc, although it is somewhat different in interpretation. While not in the operatic league, Timothy Kirrage as John, Grimes’ ill-fated apprentice, puts in some fine acting. The large cast performs extremely well as an integrated ensemble, creating convincing crowd scenes, sometimes projecting more than a hint of menace.
The rather spare sets, designed by Paul Steinberg, are used to considerable effect in this stark and dark opera. The figures in this human drama cast ominous silhouettes on the walls and backcloth of the stage, for which the lighting designer, Adam Silverman, deserves much credit. The storm scene sweeps through the Boar Inn in Act 1, with the drama heightened by bright flashes and the swaying of the chorus of townsfolk in the background, which cleverly conjures up the tempestuous waves of the sea outside. No less theatrical is the scene in Act 3, which begins with a dance party in the Moot Hall, which is realised in a highly entertaining burlesque interpretation. The scene ends with the chorus as an ugly mob, kettled claustrophobically in a diminishing triangular space, baying for the blood of Peter Grimes. The costumes, designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel are period, but from the time of the composition of the opera, in the 1940s, their drab colours contributing to the austere atmosphere of the opera.
No less outstanding is the orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner. The pacing of the score and the clarity of the instrumental parts highlights Benjamin Britten’s mastery of the medium of opera as rarely heard. Peter Grimes was an important milestone in British post-war opera, and deservedly so. Alden’s production demonstrates the full-blown intensity and originality of this remarkable work.