A great Peter Grimes

Opera: Barbican, London
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The Independent Culture
There are times when a performance is just great - no qualifications; comparison is simply irrelevant. Philip Langridge's Peter Grimes - in the City of London Festival's semi-staged 50th anniversary concert performance of Britten's opera on Tuesday - was one such performance, beyond doubt. From the moment he walked on to the stage, Langridge was Grimes made flesh: the visionary and the thug, sensitivity and violent resentment, elemental destructiveness and yearning for peace - it was all there.

All this developed and intensified chillingly, stirringly, magnificently over the next two and a half hours. The scene with the apprentice at the end of Act 2 was so believable it hurt - and how dreadfully inevitable the boy's fatal accident seemed. As for the climactic scene, with the hunted Grimes dementedly replaying phrases from the earlier part of the opera, it's hard to believe that it could ever be done better.

At the high point, where Grimes shouts his name over and over again at his invisible accusers, the cumulative power of that simple repetition was almost unbearable. Langridge's final "Peter Grimes" was an empty husk, all possible meanings wrung from the words. To do all that, and then land on the final unaccompanied E flat perfectly in tune - that's great singing whichever way you look at it.

But Peter Grimes is not a one-man show, even in that astonishing original variation on the old operatic mad scene. The London Symphony Chorus - here representing the vengeful mob heard dimly through the mist - gave secure, weirdly moving support to Langridge's crazed ramblings. Alan Opie as Balstrode delivered his final spoken words to Grimes firmly and tenderly. As for Janice Watson - a superb Ellen Orford, perfectly complementing Langridge's Grimes - the simple, quiet "Peter" with which she recognises the demented fisherman was possibly the most touching thing in the whole performance. Then there came the final scene, "the cold beginning of another day", and the villagers nerving themselves to carry on as before while Britten's music shows us how impossible that hope is.

For all this to work, for the final chords to vibrate with suppressed tension as they did here, requires strong, understanding direction. Conductor Richard Hickox's command seemed to falter occasionally in the first act, less in the second and not at all in the third. The playing of the augmented City of London Sinfonia was not ideally polished, but after a while that ceased to matter. The final act was all the stronger for the powerful scene-setting in the nocturnal fourth "sea interlude". Perhaps the muted brass could have been a touch more restrained in the wonderful women's quartet in Act 2, but the glorious singing carried it.

P.eter Grimes is almost a national institution - almost, but not quite. It speaks to us powerfully and directly; its message is at once universal and peculiarly English. But in the end there is nothing comforting in it, nothing to bolster national pride - except perhaps the thought that in spite of everything we could have produced a genius like Benjamin Britten. Several commentators have found faults in Peter Grimes, but after a performance like this, you can end up wondering how much any of that really matters.