Given that Britten's 100th birthday falls in November, and that both London's opera houses have chosen not to schedule any of his operas to coincide with his centenary, it fell to the LPO under its music director Vladimir Jurowski to keep the Britten flag flying with a semi-staged performance of Peter Grimes. And what a performance it was.
First given in Birmingham's Symphony Hall on Thursday, to glowing notices and rapturous acclaim, its second (and final) performance on Saturday inaugurated the LPO's 2013-14 season at the Royal Festival Hall.
This was no ordinary semi-staging. Director Daniel Slater and designer Alex Doidge-Green had gone to great pains to create as powerful interpretation of this greatest of twentieth century operas as was possible within the confines of the venue. Part of the Choir had been removed and replaced with scaffolding to evoke Grimes' hut whilst there was a sufficient enough strip of platform in front of the orchestra which proved equally effective as beach, Auntie's pub and the Moot Hall. The lights in the auditorium were turned right down, allowing for an evocative lighting plot to create the shifts of mood and locale on the platform. Costumes were modern, yet Slater's direction was always in tune with the piece.
Combine that with an interpretation of white hot intensity from Jurowski, superb playing by all sections of the LPO and a cast that could hardly be bettered today, and you have a performance that was overwhelming in its dramatic and musical intensity. Jurowski's account was brisk, revealing numerous details in the score, especially in the woodwind and percussion, that I'd not heard before, and he marshalled his forces superbly.
The Chorus in an integral part of this opera, and London Voices made a vivid and powerful impact – the third act cries of ‘Peter Grimes' can rarely have sounded more terrifying – my only gripe was that they sang with scores, and as none of the principals did, it seemed incongruous.
The cast was without fault. Alan Opie was an all too knowing grizzled sea-dog of a Balstrode, Mark Stone (whom we should be seeing regularly at ENO) an unusually virile and forceful Ned Keene, Jean Rigby a suitably malicious Mrs Sedley, Pamela Helen Stephen a youthful and lusty Auntie and Brindley Sherratt a forceful Swallow.
As Ellen Orford American soprano Pamela Armstrong sounded fully at ease with Britten's idiom, singing with ardour throughout. Stuart Skelton, if possible, was even better in the title role than when he sang it for ENO and at the Proms last year. He now inhabits the role completely, negotiating all the tricky corners with consummate ease and sings as though his life depends on it. His portrayal is both heart-breaking and definitive. The fact he has yet to appear at Covent Garden is nothing short of criminal. Thankfully he returns to ENO for David Alden's superlative staging in January, but for now this performance reminded us not only of what a great artists he is, but that Peter Grimes is a masterpiece. I for one cannot think of a more fitting way to honour Britten's centenary.