Phyllida Lloyd's production of Peter Grimes in 2006 was widely regarded as definitive and Opera North has wisely built on this success – and the remarkable level of teamwork achieved – by keeping together many of the same principals for the revivals in 2008 and now as part of the company's Festival of Britten, a splendid collection of operas, concerts, films and art-works to celebrate the composer's centenary.
Lloyd has returned to direct this latest revival with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts repeating his harrowing performance as Grimes. His brand of tormented blue-collar lyricism, the inarticulate rendered poetic, fits perfectly with the powerfully functional style of the production: Anthony Ward's settings incline towards a bare stage, with imaginative use of nets and wooden pallets, creating striking tableaux with the aid of Paule Constable's evocative lighting. The 1970s setting may be a touch illogical – both the purchasing of an apprentice for a suspected child abuser and The Borough's vigilante response belong to a less orderly time – but it works, creating a convincing social background and placing the characters within it.
The production stresses the humanity of Ellen Orford (potentially Grimes' salvation) and the retired sea captain Balstrode. Giselle Allen, as the schoolmistress, has built her interpretation of the part since 2006 and is totally in command of its vocal and emotional demands, as is Robert Hayward, new to the production, never straining for effect as Balstrode.
Phyllida Lloyd finds some humour in her production, but her presentation of the people of The Borough, though vividly characterised, is seldom pleasant. Yvonne Howard, another veteran of 2006, contributes a beautifully sung Auntie, the landlady of The Boar, just about in control of her over-active 'nieces' (Jennifer France and Aoife O'Sullivan). Sadly Richard Angas, who was scheduled to return as Swallow the lawyer, collapsed and died in rehearsal and this production is dedicated to his memory. Dean Robinson is an able replacement in a vivid gallery of village 'worthies', with Rebecca de Pont Davies' maliciously moral Mrs. Sedley and Benedict Nelson's spivvy Ned Keene especially memorable.
Two newcomers to make a huge impact are conductor Jac van Steen and newly appointed Chorus Master Martin Wettges. Van Steen has made his mark in concerts with the Orchestra of Opera North, but this is his first assignment in the Grand Theatre pit. He produces a dynamic, detailed and well-paced performance, with the orchestra playing superbly in the interludes. The chorus, fresh from its appearance in the acclaimed Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh, is at its most exciting vocally and ranges from public house jollity to the menace of the mob.
Peter Grimes, the opening salvo of Opera North's three-part 'Festival of Britten' – with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Death in Venice still to come – runs at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until 26 October before touring to Salford, Newcastle and Nottingham. For further information visit www.operanorth.co.uk.