Peter Grimes: ENO at the Proms

I’m pleased to be able to file a happy report from the Royal Albert Hall, following the disappointing Novello Prom and a Yeomen of the Guard that suffered for being on too hot a day, and viewed from the precipitous heights of the Balcony. The television relay confirms that as having been quite excellent, but I was unable to form a reasonable opinion on the night.

Pebbles on Brighton Beach

However, this time with the benefit of a side stalls (front row, near the stage) seat, this Grimes was pretty spectacular.  Largely the same cast as the ENO theatre run of 2009, minus in particular Gerald Finley’s Balstrode, it was as theatrical as if they had all just gathered themselves up and rushed round from the Coliseum that afternoon. Edward Gardner set unerring pace and dynamics, the score sounding effortlessly natural, with the orchestra on great form. There may be more refined orchestras out there, but there is fantastic, biting drama in the playing of the ENO team. The chorus, with their delivery, not to mention a few en masse gestures, imported from the production added immensely to the atmosphere, more so than any non-opera company choir could in such a (semi-)concert performance. Their shattering cry of ‘Peter Grimes!’ in Act 3 was chilling, marred only by some errant audience members applauding in the silence that followed. Overall, the only slight musical misjudgment was employing the RAH organ to accompany the (back-stage) hymns during the opening scene of Act 2: it was simply too hefty, and made Amanda Roocroft’s task of projecting the crucial scene where she discovers the Apprentice’s bruises almost impossible.

The cast were uniformly first-rate, all of them bringing with them the characterisations of the original run. I’ve raved about Dame Felicity Palmer before, and her Mrs Sedley was as captivating as ever. Rebecca de Pont Davies had difficulty projecting some of Auntie’s lower-lying passages, but her portrayal of Alden’s characterisation of the role is bewitching, though the idea itself is not without some difficulty as the grotesqueness makes the emergence of the women’s quartet in Act 2 a bit more of a difficult transition. Iain Paterson invested Balstrode with less evident affection for Grimes than had Finley, but the character worked effectively and was sung with strength. Mark Richardson stood in for Matthew Best as Swallow, despatching it with panache, particularly in the way he carried his score like a sheaf of papers, appropriate to the character of the lawyer. Stuart Kale, Leigh Melrose and Michael Colvin were the blustery Rector, oleaginous Ned Keene and sanctimonious (and hypocritical) Methodist Bob Boles respectively. The nieces, clutching their dollies and each other, were a spry Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke. Jacob Mason-White was a movingly vulnerable Apprentice.

As Ellen Orford, Amanda Roocroft reprised a performance of delicacy alternating with strength, though her voice was challenged by the RAH acoustic so that she lost some of the vividness that her strong performance had on stage at the Coliseum. She worked well to project the curious mix of genuine love, pity and fear that she has for Grimes. It is a mixture that is understandable when the Grimes is as towering a portrayal as Stuart Skelton’s. His vocal strength and clarity were astonishing, coupled with a performance of febrile danger and tension, so powerfully conveying the character’s sense of being stuck in his own head and at odds with the world around him. What makes me so captivated by Felicity Palmer applies just as much to Skelton: there simply isn’t any ‘downtime’ in the performance, with every gesture, twitch, glance or expression being completely about the character being played at that moment. A joy to watch. In Proms terms, this has to be a performance that sits alongside Domingo’s Siegmund for its memorable, astonishing bravura. In fact, for me the whole performance was up there with that remarkable Walküre of a couple of years back – and I was astonished anew by just how perfectly constructed this whole piece is… what more is there to say?

Addendum

BBC World Service’s The Strand had an very warm and enjoyable interview with Skelton talking about Peter Grimes this morning: it’s on iPlayer (not sure for how long) – skip to about 26’50”.

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