In the intervening years since Willy Decker’s staging of Peter Grimes was first seen at Covent Garden, Londoners have been privileged to witness two outstanding stagings of this seminal work by Opera North (Phyllida Lloyd) and ENO (David Alden) respectively. Alden’s take on Britten’s opera was the undoubted operatic highlight of 2009 and the stage pictures he created have lingered long in the memory. Would The Royal Opera’s revival of Willy Decker’s staging, last seen here seven years’ ago, now make less of an impact?
Not at all. Decker’s vision of the work, here faithfully rehearsed by Francois de Carpentries, has a European expressionistic feel to it, and maybe more than any other staging I’ve seen brings out the underlying tensions and violence that seemingly underpins any tight-knit community. Here we have a group of people who seem to be teetering on the brink of anarchy, and in Grimes find a scapegoat at whom they can unleash their pent-up fury.
Within John Macfarlane’s imposing abstract designs, all the trappings of a local fishing community are dispensed with, allowing us to focus our attention on the community. Carpentries’ handling of the chorus is faultless, and somehow they become part of the décor - constantly moving, grouping and re-grouping to create tableaux that are both disturbing and unsettling.
There is no room in this vision of the piece for individuals – even such strong characters as Mrs Sedley and Balstrode merge into the all-engulfing mass of hysteria. If you don’t ‘belong’, then you have no future as is so inexorably evident in the way in which Grimes is portrayed as an outsider. Even Balstrode and Ellen Orford are at best ambivalent towards him, but the final image is properly shocking. I won’t spoil it by revealing it, as anyone interested in opera as gripping theatre should rush to one of the four remaining performances.
Not only is this revival a theatrical knock-out, but musically it’s assured, confident and thrilling. Sir Andrew Davis, making a welcome return to The Royal Opera, conducts a viscerally exciting performance and the orchestra responds with impassioned playing, especially in the interludes. The storm had colossal guts and drive and what Davis managed to achieve was a seamless sense of unity and common purpose between the music and the staging – the two complemented each other perfectly.
Ben Heppner reprised the title role and in the seven intervening years may have lost some of the steadiness in the middle register, but his tormented, angry outbursts were still powerful and his characterisation ultimately had pathos. As Ellen Orford Amanda Roocroft made less of an impression than she had for Alden at ENO, and she was a having a particularly off-night with words, but she remains a vivid stage performer. All the smaller roles were well cast although Jonathan Summers’ Balstrode was maybe too grey of voice but there was sterling support from Roderick Wiliams as Ned Keene, Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley, Alan Oke as Bob Boles and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Auntie.
The chorus sang and acted with a frightening intensity from first to last. One left the theatre convinced, yet again, that Peter Grimes is one of, if not the greatest opera of the last century and the fact that its power is enhanced, rather than diluted by so many different interpretations is testament to this.