We’ve not been without great performances of Peter Grimes in recent years – from Willy Decker’s exquisitely beautiful realisation at Covent Garden to Phyllida Lloyd’s chilling Opera North interpretation – but David Alden’s new ENO production takes us to undreamed-of heights.
For some, Alden’s expressionistic approach is going to be too emotionally extreme and lacking in lyricism but, for me, this is what opera in the 21st Century should be all about.
Edward Gardner, proving again what an asset he is to the company, conducts a performance that electrifies from the first note to the last. Alden brings the main tabs in during the interludes, which both shocks theatrically and forces us to listen to the music without visual distraction. Gardner provides all the colour, excitement and terror that Britten’s magnificent score demands.
Paul Steinberg’s sets and Adam Silverman’s lighting are the perfect background to a production that stretches the opera in unforeseen directions. The shadowy borough lours over the action, with stark light bouncing off mottled steel and angular walls, against a backdrop of broodingly dark clouds. The scene in Grimes’ hut, a steeply sloping platform with precipitately high ladder and everything out of kilter, is stunningly realised and the death of the apprentice conceived with horrific realism.
Dominating all, Stuart Skelton’s towering Grimes is balanced somewhere between the rigorous masculinity of Vickers and the lyrical beauty of Pears and Langridge. The ambiguity of the character is unavoidable – he is undoubtedly both hero and villain - but the final picture of Skelton’s broken fisherman is wrenching and unforgettable. His “God have mercy upon me” (something that echoes hauntingly throughout the rest of the opera) almost literally lifted me from my seat.
Alden’s depiction of the society against which the tragedy of Grimes and his apprentices is played out is quite extraordinary. The chorus, resembling the asylum lunatics of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade, shake the building with astonishing force, each one a clearly defined and terrifying character.
Emerging from the communal haze are a number of crazily-conceived characterisations. As one would expect from Felicity Palmer, the interfering old bat Mrs Sedley is a piercingly vivid portrayal but other artists who perhaps in the past haven’t had so many chances to shine give brilliant performances. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ Auntie is striking as a suit-wearing drag king on a raggedy throne (what a brilliant concept) and Leigh Melrose, not seen nearly often enough on the opera stage, a shudderingly slimy spiv as Ned Keene.
Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke are the weirdest nieces imaginable, squirming and gyrating like automatons, weighed and ground down by a wildly dysfunctional society. Their scene with Ellen Orford and Auntie in Act Two – surely one of the most beautiful passages in all opera – is heartbreaking.
Gerald Finley’s natural lyricism is swallowed-up in his tortured, one-armed Balstrode, a far cry from the usual wise and sympathetic old sea-dog. Clutching the walls like a character from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, he gives us a man clearly suffering from a deeply troubled past. Amanda Roocroft, fresh from her triumph as Jenufa, is a still emotional centre as Ellen Orford.
Alden’s Peter Grimes affects you on all levels: intellectual, emotional and even physical. I found myself twisting and turning all evening like a skewered fish. You can’t ask more of opera.