Classical review: Grimes on the Beach - The chilling case of the bodies in the waves

Passion, pride and the baleful sea seep into a shoreline production of Britten's great opera

Premiered in June 1945, the week after publication of an inquiry into the death of a 12-year-old at the hands of his brutal foster father, Peter Grimes is fraught with moral ambiguity. Though based on an 1810 poem by George Crabbe, opera's story of creeping paranoia in a Suffolk fishing community fits the uncertain months between the surrender of Germany and the bombing of Japan. Small places have long memories. Twenty-nine people were injured and 11 killed in one air raid on Aldeburgh, a short stroll from the site of Tim Albery's open-air staging of Britten's opera. In Grimes on the Beach, the grief and relief of the final summer of the war is evoked in an aerial prelude for a single Spitfire, its distant pirouettes echoed in the toy plane held aloft by a small boy racing over the salt-scrubbed boards of Leslie Travers's set of upturned fishing boats.

Last Monday, in the first of three performances to be filmed for cinema release, town and festival united in a collaboration that extended far beyond the picnic blankets and plastic ponchos. As shingle, sky and salt water faded into cobalt darkness, Alan Oke's enigmatic Grimes was framed in a halo of freezing mist, half-monster, half-man, his oilskin as black as the night. Crabbe was clear on the fisherman's guilt in the deaths of the two apprentice boys William and John. Britten, an outsider by dint of his sexuality and his pacifism, was not. He was fascinated by the story of a man hounded to his death by innuendo, lacing Grimes's violence with pity, and his suicide with poetic glamour. Sung live to an orchestra recorded in concert at Snape Maltings by Britten-Pears School players, with Steuart Bedford conducting from a dug-out, Albery's staging was both sympathetic and dynamic in its response to the text, the score and the chill surroundings.

Liberated from the confines of the famous orchestral interludes, the glittering, baleful sea seeped into every scene as the baying accusations from the public inquest, the brisk industry of washboard and washing line and the boozy banter of the pub hardened into something vicious and unstoppable. Inflamed by the apocalyptic ravings of Bob Boles (Robert Murray) and laudanum-fuelled suspicions of Mrs Sedley (Catherine Wyn-Rogers), the people of the Borough swept searchlights across the audience, their whispers now a roar: "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" Neither Giselle Allen's huge-hearted Ellen nor David Kempster's authoritative Balstrode could calm this storm.

Musically, there were compromises. Recorded sound highlights the borrowed shards of Weill and Puccini and the tang of Broadway in Britten's choruses (sung here by Opera North and students from Guildhall). The voices of Auntie's Nieces (Charmian Bedford and Alexandra Hutton) spiralled into the air like the calls of gulls, while Oke remained a point of stillness, his harrowed heart unknowable. It took 24 hours for my ears to return to room temperature. It will take much longer to absorb the weight of pride and passion in this performance.

Opera criticism would normally rank low on any list of high-risk occupations. But as percussionist Helen Edordu smashed the fifth of 40 plates in Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest (Linbury Studio, London ****) and I dodged a splinter of china, I wondered if Ramin Gray's production was part of a plan to silence criticism of the Royal Opera. If so, Barry and cast members would have copped it first, not to mention the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Tim Murray. The contrast between the public gentility and private savagery of Oscar Wilde's comedy was blurred by modern dress and hectic movement but the kinetic energy of Barry's music is irresistible.

While Stephanie Marshall (Gwendolen) and Ida Falk Winland (Cecily) traded insults through megaphones and a pin-striped Alan Ewing boomed Lady Bracknell's idiosyncratic "Ode to Joy", Hilary Summers (Miss Prism) channelled TV's greatest wallflower, Rising Damp's Miss Jones. Another production is promised by Northern Ireland Opera. I can't wait.

Critic's Choice

Hänsel und Gretel, in a new production by Olivia Fuchs, opens in Garsington Opera's elegant temporary theatre at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire (tomorrow/Sunday). Stories from London, Jerusalem, Nicosia, Derry-Londonderry, Berlin, Vienna and Utrecht meet as Lore Lixenberg and the Brodsky Quartet give the world premiere of Trees, Walls, Cities, commissioned by the City of London Festival from Nigel Osborne, Drapers' Hall, London (Monday).