Peter Grimes, Royal Opera House London

A chilling portrait of obsession
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The Independent Culture

Can there ever have been a staging of Britten's Peter Grimes where the destiny of the tragic fisherman was so pointedly, so poignantly, so pitilessly signalled from the first moment we see him? When the curtain rises on Willy Decker's stunning production (originated at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels - revived for Covent Garden by François de Carpentries) this shambling bear of a man is seen crouching over a tiny coffin. Inside, the body of his apprentice who died at sea. And what we, the audience, are witnessing here is not in truth the inquest into the boy's death but the nightmare of Grimes's enduring grief and guilt. He lifts the coffin, he reels under its weight. This is his cross to bear. The verdict may be "accidental circumstances" but the shame lives on. The outsider has become the outcast and even as Grimes is moved to plant a kiss on the lips of the one person who believes in him - the schoolteacher Ellen Orford (sung by Janice Watson) - his eyes are ave

Can there ever have been a staging of Britten's Peter Grimes where the destiny of the tragic fisherman was so pointedly, so poignantly, so pitilessly signalled from the first moment we see him? When the curtain rises on Willy Decker's stunning production (originated at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels - revived for Covent Garden by François de Carpentries) this shambling bear of a man is seen crouching over a tiny coffin. Inside, the body of his apprentice who died at sea. And what we, the audience, are witnessing here is not in truth the inquest into the boy's death but the nightmare of Grimes's enduring grief and guilt. He lifts the coffin, he reels under its weight. This is his cross to bear. The verdict may be "accidental circumstances" but the shame lives on. The outsider has become the outcast and even as Grimes is moved to plant a kiss on the lips of the one person who believes in him - the schoolteacher Ellen Orford (sung by Janice Watson) - his eyes are averted to the coffin. There will be no kiss, and no redemption. So much for care in the community.

Decker's staging is extraordinarily detailed, extraordinarily potent. It's very German, very expressionistic, but the spirit is pure Britten, pure Suffolk. John Macfarlane's designs play with huge door-like slabs of grey slate over a vertiginously raked stage. Swarming over it is the closed community of George Crabbe's poem The Borough - many individuals, one mind. Decker rightly depicts them, from the first moment to the last, as a single entity. Uniformly dressed in stark, unforgiving black he has them move like a malevolent shoal or hover like judgmental hawks. Their self-righteousness is conveyed in a startling religious metaphor, the dawn chorus of Scene One incongruously played out as a church service, everyone quite literally singing from the same hymn sheet. Repent and conform.

But Grimes cannot. Ben Heppner marvellously depicts a man driven by obsession, consumed by guilt. He does so by playing the frustration, not the madness. The singing is bravely, brazenly direct. He doesn't hide behind an overuse of falsetto, sparing that for his unforgettable arrival at the Boar Inn at the height of the storm, his looming Fritz Lang-like shadow cast from the open doorway. That moment, like so much else in the show, achieves a chilling symmetry with the arrival of the new apprentice, his tiny shadow appearing like the ghost of his predecessor.

Heppner makes much of the lyric beauty of musical line at odds with the ugliness of his existence. But when frustration overwhelms him he is awesome. The scene in the hut with the boy teeters scarily between the tenderness within and the aggression without. He longs to be a father but he doesn't even notice the boy's spontaneous embrace. Following the boy's fatal fall from the cliff at the end of the act, Decker has Grimes return with the lifeless body. He puts it to bed in silence, only finally covering the face as the "moonlight" of the ensuing orchestral interlude casts yet another shadow.

The Royal Opera Orchestra play that with tremendous poise and inwardness. Antonio Pappano directs a tense, febrile account of the great score, rich in edgy rhythmic detail. The Royal Opera Chorus are implacable, the lynch mob of Act Three frighteningly unanimous. Among the "pillars" of this community - this uniformly excellent ensemble - Sarah Walker's drug-dependent Mrs Sedley has the look of Queen Victoria and the demeanour of the grim reaper. Her chilling line: "What a dangerous faith is this that gives souls equality" might serve as the key to this whole production. Only Ellen - and Watson is marvellous - and Captain Balstrode - the sturdy Alan Opie - dare to care. Their compassion makes them outsiders, too.

So having dispatched their friend to his fate, they return to the community. Another day, another church service. Reluctantly at first, they succumb to singing once again from the same hymn sheet. But in a different key.

Sensational. Unmissable.

To 16 July (020-7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk)

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