There is always added pressure on English National Opera to deliver with Peter Grimes.
As Sadler’s Wells Opera they brought it into the world back in June 1945 and the world was duly startled. But if ever an occasion demonstrated how fiercely possessive of it they are, this was it. Director David Alden has even sought to underline ENO’s “ownership” alluding not just to the period of its premiere but to the ferociously jingoistic mood of the nation as the Second World War raged on. Its first audiences may have recognised themselves from the clothes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) but would they, could they, have recognised the ugliness of their attitudes? This was no time to be different – and no one knew that better than Britten.
The Borough (a.ka. “The Nation”) is already gathered when we arrive in the auditorium and from the weathered, sea-rusted, surfaces of Paul Steinberg’s lowering set it is already clear that a picture-perfect representation of life on the Suffolk coast has no place here. Alden and Steinberg view Grimes through the poetry of Montagu Slater’s libretto. Their vision is dark and distorted and played out in brutal shadows and unforgiving white light. The Borough comprises a gallery of distinct individuals but Alden sees them all through expressionist eyes: Rebecca de Pont Davies’ publican “Auntie” is something out of Britten’s “queer” milieu – a pin-striped male impersonator with a silver-topped cane. Her simpering and suitably androgynous “nieces” (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke) look ripe for “grooming”. Ned Keene (Leigh Melrose) is what they used to call a “fancy man” – a randy pimp and purveyor of laudanum to the demented Miss Marple-like Mrs. Sedley - the marvellous Felicity Palmer one step away from Bedlam. Even Gerald Finley’s Captain Balstrode has one arm – bitten off by a shark, perhaps, or one of the locals.
But the really scary thing about Alden’s production is the way in which these assorted grotesques morph into a single entity – a brutal, unstoppable, force moved about the stage like a shoal of carnivorous fish. The climactic manhunt is the alcohol-fuelled by-product of a party in which Alden lays on a hellish vision of degenerating middle-England. The Union Jacks come out, and so does the hatred of a united national front. And the ENO Chorus – nothing short of sensational throughout the evening – are now simply overwhelming.
So, too, is Stuart Skelton in the title role. If ever a singing actor combined the elemental force of a Jon Vickers with the crazed inwardness of Pears, it is he. Watching him is hard, so near and yet so far from the healing embrace of the one person who understands him: Ellen Orford, a glimmer of humanity in Amanda Roocroft’s moving portrayal.
So, a visceral, highly charged evening driven from the tiller with tremendous passion and perception by Edward Gardner drawing playing from the ENO Orchestra that opened our ears as well as our hearts and more than confirmed the company’s ownership of this great piece.