Peter Grimes, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

The London Symphony Orchestra turns 100 in June; Britten's Peter Grimes is pushing 60. Some things just get better with age. As soon as the LSO violins began tracing out the chill, pale light of Britten's dawn interlude, their precariously high unison wonderfully unanimous, flute barely discernable on top, the quality of the imagery, the promise of a refinement to match the elemental fury, seemed assured. It was. The orchestral drama, the ingenious ways the young Britten found of capturing the play of light on an ever-changing seascape - this is where the concert performance can score huge advantages. The LSO ruled the waves on this occasion. And there was the rub.

One could argue that Britten never surpassed Peter Grimes. But what is certain is that with this, his first opera, he had found his medium. And because his theatrical instinct was spot on, removing Grimes from the stage compromised the drama in more ways than I could have imagined. Some sort of semi-staging would have helped. As it was, the Borough's motley cast of characters assumed a straight line from one end of the Barbican stage to the other (for the purposes of an LSO Live recording), the principals as remote from my seat on the extreme right of the hall as they were from some of their colleagues.

The consequence was an inappropriate sense of a musical correctness weighing more heavily than the passionate human drama it serves. It makes a huge difference that Balstrode and Grimes are eyeballing each other as the perfect storm literally and metaphorically tears their friendship apart. Colin Davis and the orchestra whipped up an emotional climacteric with that interlude, trumpets and super-high strings scything through the tuttis, but the ensuing tavern scene lacked the clammy, claustrophobic tension that a staging brings.

Again, the solo voices were too diffuse to make much of an impact in the "Old Joe Has Gone Fishing" ensemble. The LSO Chorus effectively had the big moments all to themselves, and they were thrilling. When the revelry of the village dance turns to hate in Act III and Britten subverts the jolly tune, transforming it into a malevolent chant, we were able to imagine this ugly mob careering towards us.

One wonders how Glenn Winslade's Grimes would be in the theatre. In the concert hall he's a little too proper. The "visionary" moments were often beautiful - though he might have deployed the head voice to more ethereal effect - but the rough, vocally callused fisherman was only ever hinted at. Janice Watson was an affecting Ellen Orford, Anthony Michaels-Moore a sonorous Balstrode and the gallery of Borough stalwarts was duly dominated by the two "fearful old females", Catherine Wyn-Rogers' wonderfully overbearing Mrs Sedley and Jill Grove's overripe Auntie. Keen observation, too, from Nathan Gunn's ladykiller of a Ned Keene, Jonathan Lemalu's bluff Hobson, and Ryland Davies's fastidious Rev Horace Adams.

But it was only when the entire chorus turned their backs on us to effect some sense of distance for the final scene that a whiff of theatricality finally came over the evening and I, for one, realised what I'd been missing.

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