Since its first performance in 1945, ‘Peter Grimes’ has never left the repertory and its status as a masterpiece of twentieth-century opera has never been questioned. It is a classic statement of the outsider pitted against the community and a measure of its greatness is that it is nevertheless open to so many different interpretations and can encompass such a multitude of contrasting productions from which you always learn something.
This new joint-production between Covent Garden and Madrid is no exception.
Director Deborah Warner has located the action in a depressed, impoverished East Anglian fishing village set the present-day – boarded-up shop fronts, marginal existences, and festering resentments all in search of a scapegoat. Grimes, the gruff isolated fisherman whose apprentice has died in ‘accidental circumstances’, is determined to face down local gossip by making his fortune. Tragically he rejects the wise and sympathetic help of his two supporters in the community, Ellen, the schoolmistress, and Balstrode a wise retired sea captain, and inevitable ostracism follows on the back of some truly alarming and depressingly plausible mob violence graphically depicted here by giving each member of the exceptional chorus their own back-story to enact.
As a production, the balance is right between naturalism and expressionist symbolism, with the director showing admirable restraint in letting the music speak for itself at key points without visual overemphasis. A particular highlight was the opening prologue, presented here as a dream sequence in which Grimes recalls the death of his first apprentice at sea. The visual tableau of the boat and the apprentice’s body both suspended from the flies apparently at the mercy of the sea established early on the trauma of this episode for Grimes and its role in his psychotic breakdown.
Musically, you have to start with the orchestra who are collectively a lead character in their own light. This exceptional score contains six interludes where the orchestra embodies the shifting moods of the sea and commentates on the action just past or to come. Richard Hetherington (deputising for Mark Elder) led a taught, edgy and incisive ensemble that was still capable of easing up and seizing the few but crucial lyrical moments Britten offers. The pacing was just right and the balance between singers and pit in precise and apt tension.
The supporting roles were brilliantly taken by a range of very well-known singers – luxury casting to be honest. As the humane and empathetic Balstrode Bryn Terfel brought his usual dignity, acting skill, and stage presence. Likewise, John Tomlinson used all his decades of experience to convey the pomposity and devious guile of the mayor, Mr. Swallow. James Gilchrist, John Graham-Hall, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Jacques Imbrailo, and Rosie Aldridge all delivered finely etched cameos of the different villagers, some more benign than others. In the silent role of the young apprentice, Cruz Fitz was outstanding in acting feelingly in reaction to all he has to suffer.
I was less convinced by the performances in the lead roles. Maria Bengtsson demonstrated the empathy and courage that are at the core of Ellen Orford’s defence of Grimes, but her voice was simply underpowered in this auditorium, and this diminished the effect of her interventions. Grimes is a hugely demanding role that requires not just rough defiance but moments of philosophical reflection and lyrical fantasy. Vocally Allan Clayton was well up to the challenges, capturing a sweet wistfulness as much as bold aggression. However, his physical acting was limited by comparison with others in the cast and lacking the expressive range offered by other recent interpreters of the role.
That said, this production has raw power and dramatic punch that deserves to be experienced and cherished by audiences in London and – next year – in Paris, too. The creative team has respected the original but also found ways of making it ever more relevant to our own times, and that leaves an exhilarated but also troubling impression on the mind.
- Music by Benjamin Britten
- Libretto: Montagu Slater (after George Crabbe)
- Conductor: Richard Hetherington
- Director: Deborah Warner
- Photographer: Yasuko Kageyama
- Leading performers: Rosie Aldridge, Maria Bengtsson, Allan Clayton, Cruz Fitz, James Gilchrist, John Graham-Hall, Jacques Imbrailo, Bryn Terfel, John Tomlinson, Catherine Wyn Rogers
- Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
- Until March 31 2022
- Running time: 3 hrs 30 mins, with two intervals