Classical review: Peter Grimes, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

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It was in many ways appropriate that Aldeburgh’s Britten-centenary festival should open with a concert performance of Peter Grimes.

Not only did this establish him as an opera composer, it also earned him his compatriots’ forgiveness for skipping off to America when war loomed. Set in Aldeburgh’s fishing community, it’s shot through with politics. While its librettist Montagu Slater gave it a Marxist slant, Britten imbued its central character with the spirit of his own double outsiderness, as a homosexual and pacifist conscientious objector.

Grimes, he said, was "very much of an ordinary weak person… at odds with the society in which he finds himself" - as witness the feral fury of the witch-hunting mob which his music evokes in Act Three.

The Peter Grimes of the George Crabbe poem which was Britten’s original inspiration was a rugged psychopath; in refashioning him to be sung by the super-refined Peter Pears, Britten created a disturbing archetype which was to recur in five further operas.

Some singers invest Grimes with a full-on aggression, but here Alan Oke gave him an arresting inwardness, the goal being less vocal beauty per se than a burning expressivity, and his two great recitatives – his hymn to the stars and his visions of escape from economic bondage – were glowingly illumined. And it was Oke’s – and our – good fortune that his Ellen Orford (the widowed schoolmistress who is the vehicle for his dreams of escape) should be sung by Giselle Allen, a soprano with an artistry to match his own. The final scene, with Oke savagely pronouncing his own death-sentence, was haunting in the extreme.

The other characters in this community were delineated with Dickensian vigour, with David Kempster’s resonant Balstrode, and Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford as the two flighty Nieces, being outstanding. And with the young musicians of the Britten-Pears Orchestra backed by the choruses of Opera North plus the Guildhall we got a sound which, if rough at the edges, was absolutely compelling. Conductor Steuart Bedford created bewitchment with the musical ironies of Act Two and with the delicate interplay of textures which pervade the work as a whole.

Meanwhile, down by the water’s edge, a crazy simulacrum of Aldeburgh is now taking shape: stand by for Grimes on the Beach, which will be this same show staged alfresco. Will it work? Will it rain? Let’s hope the gods smile on 17 June.

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