Peter Grimes, The Royal Opera House, London

Boos don't upset a compelling triumph
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The Independent Culture

Willy Decker's compelling production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes opened last night to tumultuous applause for its cast, chorus, orchestra and conductor, and a predictable smattering of muted boos for its controversial German director.

Based on George Crabbe's poem "The Borough", Britten's 1945 study of social alienation in a small Suffolk fishing town is widely believed to be the most important English opera of the 20th century.

Grimes (Ben Heppner) is a reclusive fisherman whose apprentice boy has died in suspicious circumstances. When another boy dies, the double tragedy can only be resolved by Grimes's suicide.

First seen at Brussels' La Monnaie, Decker's production is intimately associated with Covent Garden's music director, Antonio Pappano - formerly the music director of La Monnaie and the conductor of this production at its 1994 premier. Peter Grimes is the latest in a series of Belgian imports, not all of which have proved popular with British audiences. But the intellectual abstraction of Robert Wilson's Aida - the last La Monnaie show to transfer to London - could not be further removed from this dark, disturbing production: an account that reflects the sexual subtext more overtly than most and is remarkable for the stark, sharply raked designs of John Macfarlane.

For Heppner, Grimes marks an impressive return to form. Impressive, too, is Janice Watson's impassioned Ellen Orford. As Auntie and her two "nieces'', Anne Collins, Ailish Tynan and Helen Williams show a warmer side, while Alan Opie's Balstrode is a towering presence. But the stars of this production are the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House,two musical bodies whose panache, precision and versatility have exceeded all expectations since Pappano took over in 2002.

For Pappano, Peter Grimes is a further triumph. First night fervour aside, it remains to be seen whether Covent Garden's corporate clientele will have the stomach for Decker's production with its uncomfortable echoes of recent crimes.

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