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Peter Grimes (ENO)

David Alden's magnificent 2009 production of Britten's masterpiece returns to the London Coliseum

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Benjamin Britten's first great opera turned up everywhere last year. You couldn't take a stroll along a beach without stumbling across it; so audiences could be forgiven for sighing at the prospect of yet another outing so early in 2014. This, though, is the most devastating Peter Grimes of them all, and you'll miss it at your peril.

Rebecca de Pont Davies (Auntie), Elza van den Heever (Ellen) and Mary Bevan & Rhian Lois (Nieces) in Peter Grimes (ENO)
© Robert Workman

It's the sign of a fine production when you can't imagine it done any other way. Director David Alden has had his share of misfires at the Coliseum (ah, that dreary Billy Budd) but at his best he can tease out the very soul of an opera. His staging is by turns disturbing and funny, with unmissable nods to German expressionism not least in a hero whose spark is lit by rubbing Wozzeck and Lulu together.

Far from being a monster, Alden's titular outcast is the only sane man in the village. He's engulfed by the bigotry and hypocrisy of The Borough's seething population of inbreds. Even Ellen Orford, to whom Grimes reaches out more unambiguously in this revival than in the production's original 2009 incarnation, seems sixpence short of a shilling when she flings her hat in the air and embraces the elements. South-African soprano Elza van der Heever, whose sublimely ringing Ellen is a joy, nails the desperation behind the dowdy tenderness.

The Borough is peopled by a gallery of grotesques, the most colourful of whom get the lion's share of stage business. Ned Keene (the splendid Leigh Melrose) is a hyperactively oleaginous frotteur, not above giving even the prim Mrs Sedley a seeing-to. Felicity Palmer is magnificent as this batty old gossip, a laudanum-addicted Miss Marple who declares to Rebecca de Pont Davies's Otto Dix-inspired madam "I've never been in a pub in my life". It is Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan as the latter's euphemistically-named ‘Nieces', though, who disconcert: a dead-eyed duo whose stylised behaviour bespeaks an abused past. They only come alive – with indignation – when Bob Boles (Michael Colvin) rails at them to go "back to the gutter".

Iain Paterson's dignified, nobly sung Balstrode transcends the madness and proffers Grimes a hand of friendship, albeit one tainted with a dark brand of mercy. (His left hand is missing, tellingly.) As Grimes's doomed apprentice, Timothy Kirrage has the nervous tics of an ill-treated puppy, begging the question of what he may have suffered at the workhouse whence he came.

So to Stuart Skelton. He is a phenomenal Grimes: tragic, troubled, stricken by mental afflictions that probably have a label nowadays. If anything, his performance has gained in depth since 2009 and his ‘mad scene' is agonising to behold. As for the voice, it is flexible and burnished yet blest with Heldentenor reserves that are all the more shattering for being used sparingly.

Edward Gardner conducts a rich account of the score that accentuates its beauty. The Act 2 female quartet and Passacaglia, for example, is a stunning sequence. The orchestra plays for him in glorious Technicolor, while the production sets the wonderful ENO Chorus centre stage in powerful relief.

Alden's Peter Grimes shows why the operatic art form will always need reinvention. Too many misguided directors give modernism a bad name; but when it works, as here, it's obvious that once opera is freed from literalism it can unleash ferocious power.