Thursday, March 17, 2022

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Peter Grimes, the loner, visionary fisherman, redeemed the fortunes of the conscientious objector Benjamin Britten, when the former first strode the opera stage just after WWII in 1945. The latter died ennobled, a pillar of the cultural establishment, while his creation has gone on to define outcasts everywhere.

I doubt that Deborah Warner’s new production (first seen in Madrid in April last year) could make Grimes’s pathological isolation any more acute. Her contemporary setting, a down-at-heel, English east-coast town is about as free as an open-prison, and in Michael Levine’s set-design its sea-and-sky expanse is the only thing connecting it to the now uber-chic Aldeburgh, the base of George Crabbe’s original poem The Borough, which Britten used. Luis F. Carvalho’s costumes are just as spot-on, a depressing parade of baseball-caps, hoodies and T-shirts.

Warner’s skill at succinctly sketching in the mean little town’s mean little characters – the accommodating pharmacist, the place’s toxic gossip, the venal, drunk magistrate, the hypocritical Methodist preacher and handwringing Vicar, the two sweet-but-dim ‘Nieces’ – is second-to-none and easily explains the mounting violence. She’s captured those on the edge of things, who can quickly explode into the mob. Warner’s staging reeks of danger, and it’s a masterpiece.

Just as effectively, her staging and Levine’s designs embrace the visionary element. Grimes’s boat floats in mid-air, a trapeze acrobat swoops high over the stage as the spirit of Grimes’s first apprentice who died on a fishing-trip, and the ‘Sea Interludes’ can be heard like arias in Bach’s Passion settings, elaborating on the action. With astonishing fluency Warner pulls together the political, emotional and religious threads that give the character and his opera their potency.

This is Allan Clayton’s Royal Opera debut in the role (which he sang in Madrid), and Warner has directed him with great insight and intelligence. Clayton’s Grimes is a man not made for this naughty world, both priest and victim of a drama beyond his control. Even bearing in mind Peter Pears’s style, Clayton’s is the most internalised performance I’ve experienced. His naturally conversational tenor seems to vaporise in the ‘one-note’ that is ‘Great Bear and Pleiades’, and while singers often rail against the universe in Grimes’s final, often violent, soliloquy, Clayton just got quieter and quieter, an unforgettable, Christ-like portrayal of disintegration.

Far from supine pathos, Maria Bengtsson’s Ellen Orford, the object of Peter’s doomed aspirations for a normal life, meets his hopes half-way as a sorrowing angel, powerless to change anything. Her quiet voice is full of warmth, and on full power Ellen became, unusually, a commanding presence. Bryn Terfel is ideal for Balstrode’s authority and pragmatic, honest kindliness, and his quietly spoken command to Grimes to sink his boat caps the tragedy.

John Tomlinson’s Justice Swallow, Jacques Imbrailo’s Ned Keene the drug-dealer, Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s Auntie, Rose Aldridge’s Mrs Sedley, John Graham-Hall’s Bob Boles the preacher-man, Jennifer France’s and Alexandra Lowe’s Nieces, James Gilchrist’s Vicar and Stephen Richardson’s Hobson the carrier are all exceptionally well-played and personalised, and the Royal Opera Chorus is magnificent in the eruptive ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ roundelay during the Storm, and off the Richter Scale as the mob baying for Grimes.

Mark Elder and the Royal Opera House Orchestra strip the score of its symphonic veneer to produce a sound of savage directness and transcendent tenderness, Elder brilliantly characterising the orchestral hold on the singers. On every count – music, acting and staging – this is an unmissable production.

The only minor sadness is that the programme doesn’t include a performance history, which is odd given Peter Grimes’s importance for international opera in the last century.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3, April 23