Opera on stage
English National Opera at the London Coliseum, May 9
It’s easy for English opera-goers to feel possessive about Peter Grimes. Not only does it bear the burden of being the defining English opera of the last three centuries; its claustrophobic, coastal setting is ineluctably written into the score. But does the coast always have to be that of the North Sea? Dangerously inward-looking societies are
by no means exclusive to East Anglia, and a Grimes-like figure could find himself isolated almost anywhere on the world’s shorelines.
David Alden’s new production is certainly set in the UK—at one point the villagers wave little Union Jacks—but the New York director’s view feels like that of an outsider. More than any other recent UK staging, this one points up Britten’s Expressionist influences, most obviously Wozzeck—something Edward Gardner’s urgent, driven reading of the score reinforces. The settings, designed by Paul Steinberg, are naturalistic, from the dreary fish-market hall after the Dawn interlude, to Auntie’s spacious but armchair-filled tavern, to the promenade outside the church door, backed by a glittering if grey sea view. But several of the peripheral characters within them are grotesques who would be at home on an Otto Dix canvas, from Leigh Melrose’s spivvy Ned Keene to Rebecca de Pont Davies’s Auntie, dressed in a man’s suit, walking slowly on an orthopaedic shoe, and dismissing all who come near her with a throaty, masculine laugh. Alden overeggs things in the case of the Nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke), who are twitching, glassy-eyed girls in school blazers (costumes are by Brigitte Reiffenstuel), constantly foregrounded—in case we miss the point about exploitation and psychological damage, or that this particular society is rotten to its core. As if, in this opera, we ever could.
What is most striking, even revelatory, about Alden’s direction of the work is how believable he makes the relationship between Stuart Skelton’s Grimes and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. Most directors—or most successful ones—give the impression of having taken as their departure point the character of Grimes himself. At the centre of Alden’s production is the pair as a couple. There is a believable physical attraction between them from their duet at the end of the court scene onwards, and from then on everything each does relates in some way to the other. In the Sunday Morning scene, we seem to witness (for once) a genuine break-up, with all the sadness, love, anger and resentment that entails; Grimes kisses Ellen in passionate confusion before he hits her. At the very end, the real tragedy almost seems to be Ellen’s. Hemmed in by hostile villagers as they watch the boat sinking, she is left to a loveless existence in which one suspects that the chorus’s earlier threat—‘You who help will share the blame’—is one on which the Borough will make good.
These details of the direction were only half the story. The two central performances were both excellent. Roocroft was at her glowing best, infusing Ellen’s lines with tenderness but finding a gritty crescendo with which to confront the villagers. As for Skelton, it is hard to imagine a more complete, multi-faceted portrayal of Grimes than the Australian tenor offered us here. Skelton’s voice, with the odd entirely appropriate rough edge or catch tempering a tenor of heft but surprising sweetness, fits the role wonderfully. ‘Now the Great Bear’ was begun on a tiny whisper of tone, the ensuing crescendo flawlessly controlled; his ‘I’ll marry Ellen!’ outburst to Gerald Finley’s one-armed Balstrode in the previous scene had been almost euphoric, painting him briefly as a hero in a more conventional sense. Yes, this Grimes was certainly rough in his treatment of his apprentice—the bruise so accusingly uncovered by the boy, tall and old enough to be a useful fisherman’s help, was huge and very angry indeed—but one could argue all night about how culpable Grimes was in his death, having briefly let the tethering rope fall as the mob outside panicked him.
The kind of luxury casting that brought in Finley to play Balstrode was also represented in Felicity Palmer’s formidable Mrs Sedley—Miss Marple gone sour—and Matthew Best’s resonant Swallow, and there were no weak links elsewhere. Chorus and orchestra were unfailingly responsive, as they needed to be: conducting his first Grimes, Gardner swept the music onwards relentlessly. The Storm interlude, which is the one episode in this opera I have thought can sound dated, was here nothing of the sort, with the brass careering crazily on top of the texture; the Passacaglia, in which after an almost languid start Gardner corralled his forces bit by bit into a whirlwind of momentum, was even better.
It wasn’t how one would always want to hear Grimes, but it was unflaggingly exciting, and fitted perfectly with the staging. And while some will have found Alden’s staging a long way from their own ideas of how Grimes should be, perhaps the introduction of a critical and not entirely respectful outsider’s view is a necessary part of the opera’s progress. Peter Grimes will always be English National Opera’s signature work. But it won’t always be English.