David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes was new to ENO in 2009, with some of the same cast as this run, and looking back at my reflections I seem to have been impressed. If I am perhaps a little more reserved on second encounter, four years later, it is still a powerful account of Britten’s pre-eminent work.
Stuart Skelton brought back his Grimes, Dame Felicity Palmer reprised her Mrs Sedley and Gardner was back in the pit. Skelton’s Grimes is a tragic, vulnerable figure from the outset, blundering into scenes with an ungainly gait, to rail against the ‘Borough gossips’ intent on excluding him. There is a touching naïveté about his philosophising in Now the Great Bear and Pleiades, which brought out the ambiguity in the confusion of the crowd and their judgment that his “song would sour the beer”: it isn’t as simple as ‘them’ versus our hero. His frustrated and frustrating difficulty in communication with Ellen Orford, despite her persistence and gentle warmth, is movingly conveyed right up to the last profoundly distressing inability to say farewell as he goes to sink his boat.
Elza van den Heever is a singer new to me, but the name is familiar from the speculation that surrounded the need for a replacement Hélène for the ROH production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, being one of few to have the taxing role (in French) in her repertoire. I enjoyed her Ellen a lot, and she nicely captured the rock solid determination behind her warm words: never steely but always sure. Vocally, she got a little lost in the cavernous Coliseum at times, but the detail of the performance was always engaging. The production scores a major miss at the point that the apprentice reveals the bruise and Ellen rather oddly carries on knitting, in complete antithesis to the increasingly urgent text and music. This meant that, in many respects, she was robbed of the power of this crucial scene, which is perhaps the pivotal moment that the whole work tips into its spiral of disintegration.
Four years ago, I said that I rather liked the sense of alienation brought about by David Alden’s grotesque treatment of the population of the Borough. I’m not now quite so sure. The stylised use of the crowd works to a point, with a number of very powerful stage images, not least the ‘party’ scene, with divided stage, all of the chorus crammed into one side and Auntie approaching alone down the other. On the other hand, act 1 scene 2, inside The Boar, somehow misses the threatening dynamics of the storm, with its odd flat, wide use of the stage and a lifting roof that reveals a chorus standing about, whilst an orchestral tumult teams below. Covent Garden’s production, all on a tilt, with huge doors to blow open, introduces a much greater sense of environmental menace to sit alongside that generated by the malevolent gossips. The final scene seemed a bit too bright and flatly lit as well, again losing the threat that a few shadows can conjure up. In fact, lighting generally was high contrast, a feature I recalled from last time, but it seemed particularly so this time: we speculated whether this was for the benefit of the cameras, present for the inaugural ‘ENO Screen’ transmission.
At the head of the gossips is, of course, Mrs Sedley, and Felicity Palmer remains superlative. Rebecca de Pont Davies is expert at putting across the curious, androgynous sub-Dietrich conception of Auntie, but doesn’t always register vocally. Despite there being a great detail, clearly thought through at great length, in this version of the character, I miss the ‘blowsy landlady’ aspects for which the quartet permits a wonderful moment of shared humanity for Ellen, Auntie and the nieces. This production’s treatment of those nieces is just plain bizarre, and their rather extreme tics are a fairly constant irritant throughout, even if well sung by Mary Bevan and Rhian Lois. Iain Patterson’s Balstrode was a fairly straightforward account, vocally rich and sure, but not feeling as much ‘on Grimes’s side’ as usual. The other roles were all well-taken, and added up to an ensemble greater than the sum of its parts, in terms of the production’s individual treatment of them.
The orchestra sounded very bright and crisp, bringing out a lovely sense of the orchestral detail, but this ebullience was perhaps to the detriment of some of the warmth of the string tone. Gardner seemed to favour extreme dynamics – one minute expansive almost to a fault (the pause between the chorus’s shouts of ‘Peter Grimes!’ seeming to take an eternity), in other places a headlong dash through the score. The storm interlude, I thought, came off particularly badly and the counterpointed, rich textured writing would have benefited from a clearer articulation, even if it did have moments of thrilling vigour. I would add, at this point, that it seems to me that to bring the curtain down on the interludes is a bit of a cop-out. They generate a wonderful aural ‘atmosphere’, but in a staging they should also provide a wonderful opportunity for visual enhancement, even if only video projections. I speculate that this suggests a production conceived in episodes rather than as a through-narrative. I may be being harsh, but that was a bit of a disappointment.
To return to the start, though, this was still a performance of Grimes that was as committed, detailed, thought-provoking and, ultimately, shattering as the piece demands. People often say that there are works that you can listen to (or see) again and again, and you’ll always find something different. Whilst this is certainly one, in fact I’m simply in awe of Peter Grimes at every encounter and want to rush off and corral groups of friends who aren’t opera buffs to go and see it. Can there be a better advertisement for the art form’s potential for sheer visceral power?