Challenged by ambivalent subject matter and lingering doubts about the motivation and personality of the protagonist of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Phyllida Lloyd's inspired treatment of this bleak tragedy is both electrifying and engulfing.
She has diligently pursued the trail of clues that Britten drew from George Crabbe's poem "The Borough", and assembled a whole subtext out of its undercurrent of vice, fear and prejudice. Using the orchestral interludes to drive the narrative on, Lloyd has the Borough townsfolk involved in gusts of activity that heighten the already tense dramatic pace. At the same time, it's a production that penetrates to the core of an ostracised misfit incarcerated in a hypocritical, unsympathetic community.
The curtain rises with a flash-forward - a naked body washed up on the shore, legs entangled in a fishing net. The corpse is discovered by a child, in a telling reference to the end of another great opera about a powerless loner, Berg's Wozzeck. Locals surge forward and this silent yet powerfully dramatic little scena plunges into the Prologue, an inquest in which Grimes is already being harried and hunted.
Grimes may be emotionally choked, but Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts reveals a tenor voice as delicate and varied in nuance as the night sky in which Grimes finds solace. The range of colour Lloyd-Roberts displays is as impressive for its restraint as for its expressiveness. Awkwardly inarticulate, this Grimes is a pitiable character, a haunted giant of a man, marvellously sung and movingly characterised. Whether the brutal and brutalised fisherman is to be pitied or blamed for the deaths of his apprentice boys, with his bulky physique and close-shaven head, he certainly resembles a tabloid Photofit of a psychopathic child abuser-turned-murderer.
That's how the poky-minded residents of the drab Borough want to see him, an unwelcome presence in their unhealthily close-knit society (to which Grimes can only dream of belonging, in a brilliant short sequence when he imagines his neighbours helping him build his cliff-top eyrie). If evidence were needed that inbreeding produces degeneracy, it's right here, especially in the Boar Inn scene of a drunken orgy.
The apothecary, given a slippery portrayal by Roderick Williams, deals in exotic substances; the coroner Swallow has no scruples when it comes to pressing himself on Auntie's skittish yet all-knowing, underage nieces; the ranting Methodist preacher is a Peeping Tom, while Mrs Sedley snoops around taking snapshots in her obsessive desire to incriminate Grimes.
Giselle Allen's attractive and warmly sung Ellen Orford is tenderly and tentatively optimistic that she and Grimes might build some sort of future. It pains her when Grimes lashes out and, later, her wistful Embroidery Aria is all the more poignant as those hopes are shattered. Yvonne Howard makes an authoritative landlady, and, led by Christopher Purves as a stalwart skipper Balstrode, the cast forms a vivid and motley crew.
The chorus is arresting in its precision, its venom chilling the blood as the bellicose rabble seizes upon and dismembers an effigy of Grimes, its prey. The playing of the orchestra under the taut direction of Richard Farnes is achingly intense throughout.
Anthony Ward's sparse, abstract set and intentionally drab costumes avoid fishy imagery, a few wooden pallets practically the only scenery in a vast dark space beyond which occasional backdrops depict empty seascapes. The townsfolk busy themselves mending a huge pyramid-shaped net, which doubles as the curtains behind which prying eyes peer, and each scene is made visually enthralling by Paule Constable's painterly lighting. A great stormy evening.
In rep to 8 December (08701 224 362), then touring ( www.operanorth.co.uk)Reuse content