Grimes on the Beach

It was the opera event of the summer; perhaps (if voters in our end-of-year poll so decide) of 2013. A risky one, too, as Benjamin Britten's best-loved opera was staged for his centenary on the very stretch of windswept North Sea coastline where it is set.

‘The Borough', a fictionalised version of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, is a hotbed of small-town hypocrisy, small-minded attitudes and parochial prejudice. Hostility towards an outsider, the fisherman Peter Grimes, builds to a pitch of hysteria that is apparently vindicated by the deaths of two of his apprentices.

Britten's score for Peter Grimes is awash with storm-clouds and sea-spray, and the performances last June of Grimes on the Beach were almost scuppered by the real thing. As it was, the heavens behaved themselves just enough for the experiment to be an unmitigated triumph. Such is the fine line between success and failure.

Now, thanks to the reach of modern cinema, we can all experience the majesty of Tim Albery's production and not catch a chill in the process.

The widescreen film of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach (as it is now styled) opens in cinemas nationwide on Thursday 5 September. It's exquisitely photographed, magnificently sung and acted, and it sounds as good as it looks – notwithstanding the visible radio mics everyone wears.

Tenor Alan Oke convinces utterly as a wiry, bitter Grimes. With his pent-up fury and bafflement he reclaims the title-role for the voice-type Britten originally had in mind. He is matched by a flawless supporting cast led by Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford, the widow who tries to save Peter from himself, and by baritone David Kempster, equally convincing as the bluff Captain Balstrode.

The beach setting adds immeasurably to the experience. The scowling Oke appears to inhabit the shingled strand like a second home, and it is wonderful to see Grimes and Balstrode ‘really' haul in a boat as they sing of doing so.

Tim Albery sets the opera at the time of its writing so everyone is dressed in dowdy post-war clothes that also serve, I imagine, to conceal numerous layers of thermal underlay. The set, built from scratch on a bare stretch of shingle by designer Leslie Travers, is a ramshackle world of weathered skiffs and seemingly treacherous planks. In its down-at-heel way it looks a million dollars.

Although ostensibly a single filmed performance, in truth it is nothing of the sort. A great many of the close-ups were clearly re-mounted separately and dropped in later (which is understandable given the logistics involved) while Act One, which was performed before the sun had set, is marred by some horribly distracting wide shots of digitally-enhanced clouds racing improbably across a Spielberg sky.

There are one or two synchronisation problems, probably as the soundtrack appears to have been derived from a number of sources: not only the backing track that was set down in advance by conductor Steuart Bedford and the Britten-Pears Orchestra, but also the two wonderful concerts given at Snape Maltings the previous week (one of which I attended) that have now been issued as a separate sound-only release from Signum Records (SIGCD348).

Although on balance I'd have preferred it if Margaret Williams, the film's director, had adopted a simpler ‘point-and-shoot' approach, Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach is still a priceless document that ensures one of Britain's boldest-ever operatic undertakings can be seen by a wider audience. Don't miss it.