All hands needed on deck

OPERA Peter Grimes Royal Opera House, London

Another grey dawn breaking, another storm brewing. "Now the flood tide and sea-horses will gallop over the eroded coast." With those words, the great Act 1 chorus of Britten's Peter Grimes kicks in, unhoned and elemental, its agitated voices caught in the cross-winds of jagged brass syncopations. It's the animosity of "The Borough" finding compliance in nature, it's the moment when the amazing score first comes to the boil. Or should.

But even as Grimes himself stood defiantly in the teeth of the gale, it was plain that this current revival of Elijah Moshinsky's well-weathered production was not getting a grip. Or rather that the conductor, Arturo Tamayo, was not getting a grip. This was as nervy and insecure a house- debut as I've heard in a very long time. The first bar of the score arrived with a smudge; tell-tale wrong entries and scrappy ensemble were cause for concern before Scene I was through. Tamayo's beat was plainly problematic. In Ellen Orford's haunting Act 3 aria "Embroidery in Childhood", not one orchestral chord was together. The "Moonlight" Interlude sounded like a first play through: no phrasal shape, no colour, no nothing.

So it was all hands on stage to the rescue. Experienced hands like Josephine Barstow's Ellen found concentration in the eye of the storm. She doesn't sing a single phrase that isn't "rediscovered" from within. Her realisation, "Peter! We've failed, we've failed!", went from stunned pianissimo, so quiet it was as if she hardly dare utter it, to a searing crescendo, an octave-leap of anguish. Whereupon, Ben Heppner's Grimes struck out: "And God have mercy upon me!", a stark canon of unholy brass underlining one of the key musical motifs of the opera. When Heppner opens to such moments, he towers. As yet he lacks some of the softer variations in colour, and must find a way of deploying his upper head-voice so that his visionary solo "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" can truly assume that glazed-over complexion. But it's early days for him in this role (he's still at the stage of externalising too much of it), and already the rawness of his final mad-scene, as clumsy and pitiful as a wounded beast, is hitting the spot. The line, "Turn the skies back and begin again!" is allowed to soar gloriously free. For one moment - and it's a marvellous moment - there's still hope in it.

Nose to nose with Heppner (literally so in the great pre-storm duet) is Bryn Terfel, whose ruggedly unsentimental Balstrode is everything the role should be and more, if surely a little premature in his retirement. Among the womenfolk, Auntie (Claire Powell) and Mrs Sedley (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) are cast younger than is customary too, which works better for the publican than it does for the keeper of public morals. But Wyn- Rogers crimps her words like they're going out of fashion, an example to all, and the sight of her - the black widow - alone on stage, having dispatched the lynch-mob to bring in Grimes, is perhaps the production's finest moment. What a pity, though, that in the opera's 50th anniversary year this revival should be rudderless for want of better conducting.

n At ROH, London WC2, 11, 19, 22 April (0171-304 4000)

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