When David Alden’s version of Peter Grimes was first performed in 2009 it was incredibly well received, both for its ingenious staging and excellent musicianship. Little surprise then that this first revival, in which many of the original performers reprise their roles, is a powerful and accomplished one.
The strength of the production lies in the way in which it delineates the society that surrounds Grimes, highlighting its oppressive nature while bringing out the individuality of each character. In the opening trial the village gathers as a mass of brown, grey and black garbed figures, from which the principals emerge one by one to assert their own character as they sing. In this way a picture is painted of a community who choose to make Grimes a scapegoat as a way of masking, or atoning for, their own sins. Lawyers are caught with their trousers down, and apothecaries jive in crazed delight on hearing of landslides and collapsed bridges.
The costumes are witty and inventive – the Auntie character sports a purple pin striped suit which hints at the sinister without overstating things – and the use of movement is imaginative and stylised, the nieces swirling around together in one huge fur coat, and performing formalised arm gestures.
Alden knows when to hold back. No attempt is made at any form of visual distraction during the Interludes, during which the curtain simply falls, allowing the orchestra to take centre stage. This works because the music possesses ample drama in its own right, and in conductor Edward Gardner’s hands it is gloriously performed, bringing balance and sinuous flow to Britten’s score, and a sense of terrifying poetry to the Storm Interlude.
An expressionist box-like set frames the action, drawing the eye in and creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. Floors and walls set at strange angles evoke the surfaces of wood, corrugated iron and breezeblock, while simple trestle tables are carried to new positions in a manner that suggests the hoisting of sails. Adam Silverman’s lighting also contributes to the eerie effect. When Grimes sings his Act Three soliloquy the monumental shadows really make it look as if three figures are present. When the village community moves in on Grimes’ house the figures sidestep their way along the dangerous ridge, their shadows appearing in profile to give the impression of an advancing mob.
Stuart Skelton – reprising his role from 2009 – is a most impressive Peter Grimes. His tenor voice possesses a natural lightness and clarity, but, without ever losing an ounce of musicality, he also brings grit, power and ruggedness to his sound, which highlights his character’s anguish. New to the production, Elza van den Heever is quite brilliant as Ellen Orford, with a sound of shimmering vibrancy, investing each line with intelligence and feeling. The essential purity that lies at the heart of both their voices makes their duets deeply affecting.
Matthew Best is charismatic as the lawyer Swallow, while Iain Paterson’s baritone is used to similarly good effect to show Captain Balstrode as a man who is just as sensitive as Grimes, but who has a far greater grasp of reality. Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene, Michael Colvin as the sanctimonious Bob Boles, Rebecca de Pont Davies as Auntie and Felicity Palmer as Mrs Sedley also stand out in what is a superbly performed production.
On 23rd February Peter Grimes will be broadcast live into cinemas across the UK and Ireland and to selected cinemas worldwide.