Peter Grimes/LSO, Barbican Hall, London<br></br>Classical Opera Company, Wigmore Hall, London

Rare, pure and untrammelled
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Last Saturday, only a few short hours after rumours of the London Symphony Orchestra's impending financial crisis had hissed their way through the news pages, champagne corks were popping again in the Barbican. A packed house, an excellent cast, a revered conductor and a thrilling and visceral work. Who could ask for anything more? To launch an orchestra's centenary celebrations with one of the most disturbing operatic reflections of modern society might seem an odd move. But Peter Grimes is, like the LSO, one of the triumphs of its century, and this - the first of two concert performances under Sir Colin Davis - was one of their finest moments. Crisis? What crisis?

Britten's 1945 study of social alienation and private violence is the most powerful of 20th century English operas. To begin with, we have the sea: not just the shimmer of Debussy and Turner but the beligerent suck and boil of Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau. No-one has better described this sullen unpredictability in music and Sir Colin Davis's understanding of it - its pace, its flow, its balance, its contours - is unparalleled. So to the shore and Britten's fictitious Borough, where an orchestra used to being centre-stage made such fine accompanists that one was barely aware of their presence. With the touristic argot of Sweeney Todd still jangling in my head, the clarity of Montague Slater's libretto was like a glass of cold water after a rough night's sleep. But if Slater's ear for character and language is impressive - perfectly attuned to subtle insinuations of the British class-system - Britten's ear for its pitch and fall is acute. Indeed, Janacek and Adams aside, few composers have better caught the sticky rhythm of mass hysteria or the claustrophobia of a small community. Better still, and in marked contrast to The Turn of the Screw, Britten's personal preoccupations do not dominate the business of telling this story.

If Screw fetishises the loss of innocence, Grimes shows the horror of a world where the physical abuse and possible murder of two children is no longer shocking enough to cause outrage. A world where the suggestion of a sexual element to these crimes is the only catalyst to public intervention. A world where a school-teacher will put her regard for a man she knows to be guilty of violence above the safety of a child, and where suicide on the part of the accused is the only alternative to mob justice. Is this plausible? We know it is. That Britten subverts our instinctive revulsion towards Grimes is the stroke of genius. And here, minus theatrical direction, the ambiguity of his character was further underlined.

Despite some sliding and tonal occlusion, tenor Glenn Winslade perfectly captured the unknowableness of Peter Grimes. With eyes narrowed against attack or embrace, Winslade gave no hint as to his character's motivation, culpability or sexuality. Which had the curious effect of making the desperate schoolmarm Ellen Orford a far less sympathetic figure than usual. How much of this was deliberate and how much the effect of Janice Watson's cool soprano was hard to tell, but Orford is not, in my opinion, a figure to be pitied. Less sympathetic still were Christopher Gillett's Bob Boles and Catherine Wyn-Rogers's Mrs Sedley: both masterpieces of dyspeptic prurience. Charm fell to Nathan Gunn (Ned Keene), Jill Grove (Auntie), and Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan as the Nieces, while James Rutherford's Swallow was particularly fine. An excellent cast, marred only slightly by Anthony Michaels-Moore's atypically distant Balstrode and Jonathan Lemalu's plummy Hobson.

So how much did we miss the staging? Speaking personally, not at all. Though Winslade raised his hand at the moment when Grimes strikes Ellen no contact was made and neither was it faked. The boy - a silent role - was absent altogether. But Peter Grimes has nothing to do with the sorrow of children per se and everything to do with adult desires and fears and prejudices and prurience. In the deaths of Grimes's apprentice boys, every citizen of the Borough has dirty hands. Make the equation of Britten equals Grimes if you must or consider the general loss of innocence in the wake of a war that saw millions killed with a cruelty previously unimaginable. The beauty of the LSO's unadorned performance was that it made all these ideas possible and amplified none of them in preference to the others. A musical experience as pure as this, as untrammelled by directorial input and as perfectly realised, is a rare joy at any time. How much rarer still when the subject matter has such profound and pitifully quotidian contemporary resonance? When Willy Decker's overtly sexualised 1994 La Monnaie production of Peter Grimes opens at Covent Garden this July, it will have much to live up to.

A sunny spritz of early and middle-period Mozart was something of a culture-shock after Britten, but the Classical Opera Company's annual performance at the Wigmore Hall is not to be missed. In a uniquely jovial atmosphere - gosh, the Amadeus Society are a happy bunch! - conductor Ian Page's thoughtful programme of rarities went down a storm. Despite appalling humidity in the Hall's bizarre January micro-climate - which led to a great deal of re-tuning in the orchestra - Mozart in Salzburg was a breezy event that, with the exception of the exquisite Grabmusik K.42, focused on the zeffiretti and caccia effects that Mozart did so sweetly in his youth and was contrasted nicely with Michael Maloney's well-sourced and witty readings. Not content with the usual line-up of two or three young soloists, Page brought five: sopranos Rebecca Bottone, Cora Burggraaf and Martene Grimson, tenor Robert Murray and baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe. With delightfully stylish contributions from each of these - and, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the utter beauty of Burggraaf's voice really has to be heard to be believed - and gorgeous accounts of Symphony No 29 and three movements from the G major Cassation, I'm eagerly waiting for their next fully-staged production.