Opera review: Grimes on the Beach, Aldeburgh, Suffolk - an extraordinary spectacle at the water's edge

The Independent joins 1,800 opera-goers on a freezing English beach as Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes competes with the crash of the waves and the whistling wind. The result? Spectacular

People said it was crazy, that the wind would drown the singers, that everyone would freeze – but there wasn't one spare place in the improvised 1800-seat auditorium on the shingle.

At 8.45pm a Mosquito fighter roared low along the beach, then looped the loop and shot off into the distance. And that touch grounded us: in the period when Britten conceived the opera, and at the centre of its world, with the local audience watching a drama starring their own not-so-distant ancestors. A chill wind was blowing, and the sky looked threatening.

The real-life courtroom in which the opening inquisition took place was just behind us; the fictional one was on a crazy simulacrum of the Aldeburgh seafront, with boats up-ended and the decking twisted and torn as though by a tsunami. The sound of the pre-recorded orchestra hung in the air while Grimes and his hostile interlocutors – the soloists miked so we didn’t miss a word - fought their battle with infinitely more vividness than they had previously done in the concert hall.

No one was spot-lit, so what we got was a panorama creating a very different effect from the conventional opera-house one. Giselle Allen’s Ellen Orford and David Kempster’s Balstrode were brilliantly delineated, and Alan Oke’s Grimes had a searing intensity, but they were just tiny figures in a landscape dominated by two inexorable and immutable characters – the community itself, and the sea.

Tim Albery’s direction constantly reinforced this as the townsfolk hauled boats up the beach, mended nets, did their laundry, and decorously filed into church. And despite the cold he was aided by the elements: as Steuart Bedford’s band launched into Britten’s storm music, a real storm seemed to be brewing, while the dying sun touched the clouds with pink in a sudden effect no man-made lighting could have achieved. But the real storm didn’t materialise, allowing the drama to assert its own hyper-reality as darkness fell and sea-mists softened the outlines of the set: like King Lear’s poor, bare, forked animal, this Grimes sang his heart out and went submissively to his death while the world, propelled by the tender cruelty of Britten music, just went on turning.

Opera-house productions of Peter Grimes will come and go, but for me – and probably for everyone else at this extraordinary spectacle – none will hold a candle to what we witnessed under a black sky, in a biting wind, by the water’s edge.