BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Take an opera out of the opera house and put it into the concert hall and a number of things can happen.  An indifferent production that detracts from the musical values can soar in these circumstances, as happened with the Royal Opera’s recent Troyens prom, or the stripping of a great staging can expose weaknesses that weren’t previously apparent. 

Neither was the case with ENO’s prom of Peter Grimes.  David Alden’s 2009 realisation, one of the most exciting and insightful for decades, could hardly have been improved upon but its absence on this occasion revealed no faults in the thrilling playing of the ENO Orchestra under Edward Gardner.  Every detail was meticulously executed in a performance by turns fiery and radiantly beautiful.  The Royal Albert Hall’s organ brought a dimension to the church scene that could never be achieved in a theatre.

The company managed to give a strong flavour of Alden’s vision, with an unusually complex semi-staging that included some semblance of costume and use of props such as a full-length rope hauled across the width of the RAH’s podium.

Many of the vivid characterizations – Rebecca de Pont Davies’s extraordinary Auntie, Leigh Melrose’s superb Ned Keene and Felicity Palmer’s inquisitive old bag of a Mrs Sedley – remained intact.  If the extreme weirdness of the Nieces was lost in the attractiveness of Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke in little black dresses, there was still something highly affecting in their portrayals of these waifs as dysfunctional victims.

Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen Orford had a rather squally outing in the Royal Opera’s revival last year and here she was for the most part back to form, although the quartet of women in Act 2 (“From the gutter”), surely the most beautiful passage in all modern opera, didn't quite rise to the heights it can.  Roocroft often suffers from ragged diction but she is still one of our finest singing actresses, bringing great sympathy and insight to every role.  Iain Paterson, new to Balstrode, and the only leading replacement of the night, was strong as the old sea dog and it’s a portrayal that should bloom once it’s taken on to the stage.

Above all, Stuart Skelton’s Grimes has grown in stature and now sits alongside the very finest interpretations of the role.  I commented in my review of the 2009 production that vocally he’s poised between the heft of Vickers and the lyricism of Pears or Langridge, and that stands.  It’s a voice of great beauty, which has everything the part demands, from the exquisite pianissimos of the Pleiades aria to the ferocious power of “And God have mercy upon me,” sung effortlessly with a strapping lad over one shoulder.          

Bewilderment haunts Skelton’s Grimes, as though events, even of his own making, are moving too fast and sweeping him away in inevitable tragedy. His final scene, where much of the singing is unaccompanied, was if anything more haunting and moving than it was in the theatre.  In a stroke of inspiration, Grimes then disappeared into a sea of people, as he left through the arena and was slowly lost to sight.  We really should be seeing Skelton’s Siegmund at Covent Garden this autumn but sadly that’s not the case. 

The ENO Chorus was also exceptional and this was altogether an evening of the highest musical standards.

- Simon Thomas