OPERA / Like a fish out of water: Stephen Walsh on Austrian echoes in Glyndebourne's current revival of Peter Grimes, conducted by Franz Welser-Most

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The Independent Culture
So many things about Britten's Peter Grimes are quintessentially English that it's easy to forget its very un-English musical ancestry. In Sunday's Glyndebourne revival, the Austrian conductor Franz Welser- Most instinctively brought out the music's Mahlerian-Bergian colourings: and not just the colourings, but the structure and line, the arch of musical fate that makes Grimes cousin to Wozzeck and links Aldeburgh by an invisible thread to Vienna and Mahler's Hauschen.

Whether this is the whole Grimes is a good question; but it carries conviction. Trevor Nunn's production revives well in the new house; its sullen concentration, tinged with a Chirico-like surreality of light and shadow, feeds on the unhindered concentricity of the new stage. This is a Suffolk both real and abstract: both a place and a sense of being.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson's Grimes goes with it. The portrait has a morose vulnerability, in which violence is the only expression of an inarticulate vision. Less sinewy and perhaps less stagy than others in the role, he brings out its suppressed lyricism, sings it all beautifully and ends up more victim than psychopath - very much in the Wozzeck mould.

The weakness of the staging, ironically, is its side-stepping of those details in which the work itself can sometimes seem at risk. Britten's Borough is also a set of pen portraits; and Grimes's visionary ravings alternate with a coarse realism, notably in his scene with the boy.

Nunn, and his assistant Stephen Rayne, haven't exactly shirked this issue, and there are several sharp character vignettes. The two most important are also the best. Vivian Tierney brings a fresh view to the often schoolmarmish Ellen, making her lonely, vulnerable, as touching as Grimes himself. Alan Opie's Balstrode is more orthodoxly bluff and salty, but above all stunningly sung - a reminder of a certain element of waste in ensemble opera of this type. Robert Poulton's Ned, Menai Davies's Auntie, John Graham-Hall's Boles and Yvonne Howard's Mrs Sedley are also incisive cameos that suffer musically from this built-in neglect of the needs of the solo singer in genre opera.

I do, however, blame the producer and conductor for a certain unease in these company scenes. Nunn doesn't come fully to terms with their curiously slow pacing, a problem not helped by Welser-Most's rather slow tempi. As for the conductor, his essentially symphonic view, which gets such superb results from the London Philharmonic and Glyndebourne Chorus in the storm and vigilante scenes, is slightly at a loss when it comes to the sudden switches of pace and focus - the scraps of conversation, the intrusion of 'reality' into the nightmare. A certain inertia afflicts the performance at these moments, where in set-pieces like the Gutter Quartet it's precisely the stillness and concentration that work the magic. Perhaps this is a fair price to pay for a novel and undeniably affecting view of an opera that is, after all, epic in implication, if not in style. It would be good, though, to make room for the messier, more English elements too.

In rep at Glyndebourne, nr Lewes, East Sussex (0273 813813) to 25 Aug

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