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Michael Coveney: Is Peter Grimes at the ENO better than Charlie or The Book of Mormon?

Michael Coveney discusses the blurred lines between musical theatre and opera, and the ENO's current production of Peter Grimes

Stuart Skelton in Peter Grimes
© Francis Loney

Okay, as we really shake down in the awards season to the best of this and the best of that, let's think about what is usually the most difficult and contentious category in all the lists, that of best musical.

I only bring this up because last night I saw what is incontestably the best piece of musical theatre currently on offer in London - but only for a few more performances - the overwhelming revival of Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten and Montagu Slater (from an 1810 poem by George Crabbe) at the ENO.

David Alden's production won its fair share of awards and five-star hosannas when first mounted in 2009, so there's no fear of it coming between American Psycho, The Scottsboro Boys, The Book of Mormon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or even Stephen Ward when the chips are down at the WhatsOnStage awards concert on 23 February, or the Oliviers in April.

But, I'm sorry guys: if you're talking music, or theatre, or indeed just lyrics - you're all absolutely nowhere next to Peter Grimes. It's one of the great psychological, atmospheric dramas of the 20th century, and in its portrait of a remote coastal fishing community battered by storms, its cliff faces sliding into the sea, and its moral certainties challenged by suspicions of child abuse at its very heart, its time sure has come round again with a terrible vengeance.

Not for the first time I wonder about the false distinction we insist on making between operas and musicals. It's an anxiety that dates back to Porgy and Bess - which in so many ways Peter Grimes resembles - and resurfaces in discussions about both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, let alone Puccini and West Side Story. We can say for certain that Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage aux Folles) wrote musicals. Or that Mozart wrote operas.

But it's all one big world of musical theatre, really. Composers like Kurt Weill and Sondheim, perhaps, slither more easily between the expectations of both opera stages and Broadway boites. Not so Britten, whose rarefied, exquisite artistry is clearly the preserve of a specialised audience. Well, it's not for the Les Miserables crowd, that's for sure, is it?

Except: no-one who loves Les Miserables (and that includes me; I wrote a rave review way back on opening night in the Barbican; so did several other critics, spoiling the story, still stubbornly adhered to, that the show was booed off by the Press) could fail to be utterly embroiled and enthralled in the tale of Peter Grimes, or the surging sea music that engulfs him, or the sight of a beautifully characterised community - in Alden's production even more warped and strange than the troubled fisherman Grimes himself - raising their voices and moral standards in songs of praise, rage and ominous witch hunt.

I was dying to ask Michael Grade, lately expounding on popular musical theatre on television, what he thought about it all last night, but he disappeared into a champagne cubby hole with Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, and remained hugger mugger within for both intervals. I did find the Sunday Times critic, Hugh Canning, though, who was propped against a wall in the foyer, thoroughly winded and almost speechless (a first, for him); and he'd seen the production several times already.

Britten wrote the title role, of course, for Peter Pears, though it's hard (in my mind, at least) to see how Pears could have matched the full range, colour and lyrical turbulence of Aussie heldentenor Stuart Skelton. Since Pears, the other two great Grimes have been Jon Vickers and Philip Langridge, and Canning reckons Skelton is easily worthy of naming in the same company.

Britten himself didn't much like Vickers in the role, probably because he was a bit too rough and hairy, rather as Skelton is. But Skelton's soft singing, and his delicately signalled acting, is beyond praise. He manages to be both monster and booby, a damned soul, but a deeply touching lost one, too.

His emotional life-line, if you like, is the widowed schoolmistress Ellen Orford - sung with emblazoned, full-throated radiance by South African soprano Elza van den Heever, making an ENO debut - who believes in Grimes being allowed his way in the world under heavy supervision leading ultimately, perhaps, to her, as well as his, salvation. Alden sets the opera at the time of its composition, around 1945; so this is not state-sponsored care in the community, it's charity pure and simple.

Ellen has made a huge mistake, though, and another boy dies. As the hapless, helpless Grimes faces his fate in the broad, raw vistas of the Suffolk coast - the coastal town is Borough, meaning Aldburgh, spiritual home of Britten and indeed George Crabbe - the stage offers a limitless horizon and, in a deft design coup, the surtitles cease altogether.

Not least of the evening's pleasures, with or without the surtitles, is hearing English sung in this house that actually fits the music and the meaning like a glove; even the best of translations from Verdi or Strauss have awkward moments in abundance. The amazing design of Paul Steinberg creates a huge corrugated fishing shed on the stage with architectural facets and street corners; Grimes's hideaway hut is dangerously sloping, like the cliff outside, into to the sea, and Skelton's physical performance in that scene matches perfectly the slipperiness and danger in the music.

You want crowd scenes? After the static, rectilinear choreography of King Lear's depersonalised followers at the National, here's how you do it. Fantastic work from movement director Maxine Braham, with some stunning choral effects, great use of tiny wrist gestures (very Pina Bausch). I'm always suspicious of good lighting that's too noticeable, but Adam Silverman's palette of drained colour, thunderbolts, shadows and silhouettes, even a bit of strobe, is impeccable.

Naturally, it's always better with a band. And what a band. I seem to say this every time I go to the ENO these days and Edward Gardner's in the pit: the sounds coming out of that cavity are simply incredible, not least in the interludes, which contain some of the finest and most imaginative orchestral writing you have ever heard. Yes, on balance I think I do prefer Peter Grimes to The Book of Mormon.

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