Tuesday, 4 February 2014

PETER GRIMES, English National Opera, 1 February 2014

Benjamin Britten; PETER GRIMES
English National Opera, 1 February 2014

PETER GRIMES                                           Stuart Skelton
ELLEN ORFORD                                          Elza van den Heever
CAPTAIN BALSTRODE                              Iain Paterson
AUNTIE                                                           Rebecca de Pont Davies
FIRST NIECE                                                 Rhian Lois
SECOND NIECE                                           Mary Bevan
BOB BOLES, Methodist                             Michael Colvin
SWALLOW, Lawyer                                     Matthew Best
MRS SEDLEY                                               Felicity Palmer
Rev HORACE ADAMS                               Timothy Robinson
NED KEENE, Apothecary                         Leigh Melrose
HOBSON, carter                                          Matthew Trevino
JOHN, the apprentice                                TImothy Kirrage
DOCTOR CRABBE                                     Ben Craze

Chorus of townspeople and fishermen
CONDUCTOR                                               Edward Gardner
DIRECTOR                                                    David Alden

A stunning performance of great intensity, with orchestra, conductor and singers working so seamlessly together, the chorus as vital a character as the soloists. Indeed, Britten saw it as the individual against the collective - which is not quite how George Crabbe saw it; Britten does make Grimes into a more ambiguous character, rather than an out-and-out villain. (There is thus more room for character development, and at one some point - which I shall come to - Grimes appears as much victim as villain).

But let me start at the beginning, with a few words about the staging, which  is quite minimalist; an almost bare stage for the investigation into the death of Grimes' apprentice, with the Chorus - suspicious, hostile villagers - at the back of the stage as spectators.   Grimes (Stuart Skelton) climbs on the table to make his point to the hostile witnesses and spectators.

The second scene also is set indoors, the set later becomes the Boar - 

complete with an Auntie (Rebecca du Pont Davies)  straight out of Berlin cabaret. Nothing to do with PETER GRIMES, but a wonderful characterisation!! (The  characterisation seems to be based on a specific painting by Otto Dix)

Photo by Roy Tan,  West End Theatre

I like the little details of staging and characterisation, such as the fact that Hobson the carter is drunk under the table, but not so drunk that he can't get up and say 'Cart's full, Sir', when he realises what the job is, and the characterisation of Ned Keene as a 'bit of a wide boy'.  The scene shows Grimes at odds with the village even before his new apprentice arrives, and he does nothing to set things right, rushing off with the boy at once, provoking the cry of contempt from the villagers - 'Home!! You call that home?'

 The minimalist staging continues throughout - perhaps the emptiness reflects the emptiness of the souls of many of the characters, (with the exception of Ellen and Balstrode). There are  few scene changes, although the sea is indicated in the first scene of Act II, with Ellen and the boy on the beach. There's a poignant moment when Ellen (Elza van den Heever) takes her hat off and dances around in sheer exuberance - but it doesn't last, as she notices how quiet the boy is.

Stuart Skelton is unsurpassable as Grimes; the role takes the tenor through a whole  range of vocal colouring, from sullenness and anger in the first Act, to beauty of tone in the sad, lyrical 'in dreams I've built myself some kindlier home'...because that's all it is, dreams. This is a side of Grimes' nature that the villagers never see, and he is never able to let it flourish....

In dreams I've built myself some kindlier home
Warm in my heart and in a golden calm 
Where there’ll be no more fear and no more storm. 
And she will soon forget her schoolhouse ways 
Forget the labour of those weary days 
Wrapped round in kindness like September haze. 
The learned at their books have no more store 
Of wisdom than we’d close behind our door. 
Compared with us the rich man would be poor. 
I’ve seen in stars the life that we might share: 
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore, 
A fair white doorstep, and a woman’s care.  

Fine sentiments, and beautifully expressed, although Grimes has been seen not only terrorising the apprentice but striking Ellen.....but Britten gives the tenor  and the orchestra such beautiful music to express this impossible dream. 

He is well matched by the mellow, warm tones of Elza van den Heever as Ellen. Ellen too is a complex character, and Elza van den Heever gave a subtle, nuanced performance. The quartet with Auntie and the nieces was very moving.

  Praise also for Iain Paterson as the old sea-dog Balstrode, who stands aside from the rest of the villagers and is not entirely unsympathetic to Grimes.

All the cast displayed a very high level of musicianship and acting. Felicity Palmer deserves special mention for her presentation of the awful Mrs. Sedley. (Her malice is such that even Ned Keene, (Leigh Melrose) no friend of Grimes, feel compelled to find a reasonable explanation for his absence and the disappearance of the boy.

(Picture by Tristram Kenton)

 And now I come to the Chorus, the group of bigoted villagers with whom Grimes is at odds. The level of hostility is palpable, right from the beginning, building up to the scene in which they repeatedly shout his name - they become a howling mob, a many-headed hydra - er - waving Union Jacks? Another directorial innovation, which does make them more menacing (think BNP, for instance).  This is the point at which Grimes seems to be as much victim as villain - if you look at the actual words they sing, it seems as if it is not really about the apprentice at all, it goes deeper than that.
Who holds himself apart 
Lets his pride rise. 
Him who despises us 
We’ll destroy. 
And cruelty becomes 
His enterprise. 
Him who despises us 
We’ll destroy.

I refer again to the superb musicianship of the entire ensemble, the Storm Sea Interlude especially was very intense and frightening.

I love this opera, and I loved this performance.


  1. Going to see Peter Grimes on Saturday February 8th, thank you for this brilliant review, so looking forward to it!

  2. What a wonderful review. So well written I LOVE Peter Grimes and this really makes me want to see it. But, don't think I can make it across the pond! Any chance of it streaming? Bes, Peggy