Opera: A manhunt for style

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THE IDEA of getting Peter Stein in to direct the Welsh National Opera's new Peter Grimes was in one sense obvious, in another sense inspired. A director who instinctively bases himself on close reading of the text (music and libretto), Stein is also an alert symbolist, as his Pelleas here demonstrated. So Grimes, a veristic opera with an emblematic hero, should be right up his street.

As yet the promise is only three-quarters fulfilled. The Cardiff production will delight lovers of stage naturalism and engage the brain cells of WNO's thinking patrons. It must certainly be among the most scenically beautiful ever seen on stage. Stefan Mayer achieves a translucency worthy of Corot in the harbour scene, and this quality is maintained, through various contrasts to the bitter end where dawn again breaks serenely on just another human tragedy.

Stein is in his element unravelling Britten's complicated dramaturgy, with its massive choral set pieces. The manhunt ensembles are simply overwhelming (with supremely committed choral singing), and the comings and goings in the Boar have an almost unbearable intensity which reaches apotheosis when Grimes himself appears, a giant figure of doom against the storm-battered doorway.

Where Stein is less at ease is in those tricky moments of individualisation: the personalities in the crowd - a notorious Grimes fault-line. These exchanges are riddled with problems of timing and style, accentuated perhaps by Stein's heroic rejection of stylisation. Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, were also, of course, thinking naturalistically at these moments. But the real trouble they cause is musical. Unless the singer dares "lose" contact with the conductor, there is an awkwardness; and if he or she does dare, ensemble can go to pot.

Carlo Rizzi seems to me not yet to transmit the out-and-out confidence which could defeat this problem, though his conducting is alert and intelligent: evidence of a brilliant ear and sharp instincts in music far from his normal stamping-ground. He finds many new colourings. The "gutter" quartet is as beautiful as I've heard it, the Passacaglia superbly exact and intense, but at times he pushes a tempo against the singer's interests ("Murder most foul" is an example).

With its big cast, this is strictly a one-man opera. John Daszak rises grandly to the challenge: a lumbering semi-articulate whose terrible sensibilities have to fight their way through a wall of social inadequacy. His storm duet with Balstrode (Donald Maxwell) is as gripping as the visionary moments are eloquent; only the madness eludes him, and the final ravings are disappointingly factual.

Janice Watson is a lovely Ellen: sweet-voiced, youngish and uncomplicated. Of the vignettes, Ann Howard's Auntie, Peter Brooder's Boles and Alan Ewing's Hobson rate special mention, though all are excellent. I wearied only of the silent Dr Crabbe (Paul Gyton), criss-crossing the stage like some senile, ghostly sentinel: Stein's sole stylisation, and a curiously unhelpful one.

Final performance Wednesday (01222 878889), then on tour ( 01222 464666)