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Peter Grimes, English National Opera review - not quite the pity or the truth | reviews, news & interviews

Peter Grimes, English National Opera review - not quite the pity or the truth

Peter Grimes, English National Opera review - not quite the pity or the truth

Strong sounds, but the tension sometimes flags in this hit-and-miss revival

'Old Joe has gone fishing' and Grimes is at loggerheads with the BoroughAll images by Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Britten’s biggest cornucopia of invention seems unsinkable, and no-one seeing his breakthrough 1945 opera for the first time in this revival will fail to register its forceful genius. David Alden’s expressionist nightmare of a production, though, has never seemed to me to hit the heart of the matter. And though musical values are strong, ENO music director Martyn Brabbins doesn’t always keep the tension flowing.

This always has been and always will be a showcase for the English National Opera Chorus, projecting perfectly while semaphoring and hand-jiving, good enough to make us forget - as Britten's music mostly does, this production less often - Montagu Slater's subfusc text. But at the first, 2009 airing and a subsequent revival, the elevation came from the partnership of Stuart Skelton’s protagonist and Edward Gardner’s cut-and-thrust conducting, before that from the greatest of all Grimeses, Philip Langridge and David Atherton in a production by Tim Albery which would have been more deserving of revival. Brabbins and his lead come nowhere near. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Peter GrimesGwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther in the company’s smash-hit Wagner Mastersingers was the best sung I’ve ever heard, and those golden tones give us some bel canto lines here. But he’s not the singing actor the role requires; both the violence and the visions are sold short, and I remained uninvolved in his fate until the final mad scene (pictured above), too late. It’s surely wrong when the haunting music of “We sailed into the wind”/”What harbour shelters peace” and its reprise in the middle of the storm interlude loses focus – maybe I wouldn’t have noticed all those latecomers being admitted at the worst possible moment if there had been the proper intensity.

The Passacaglia at the centre of the opera, its true heart of darkness, feels underenegised at first, and no amount of table-thumping in Grimes's hut will substitute for the real physical threat he poses the latest ill-fated apprentice. But I doubt if we can ever return to the acted-out violence Langridge's characterisation gave us - distance these days has to be maintained.Ellen and Apprentice in ENO Peter GrimesElizabeth Llewellyn, on the other hand, lives her luminous truth as best she can through the peculiarly motivated character of the not entirely sympathetic Ellen Orford, the schoolteacher who helps Grimes drive through the red lights at sea with a new apprentice. Can this really be a potential love-affair? Joined hands at “this is a friend”, and a kiss before a lethal blow in inarticulate desperation when she tells him “we’ve failed” suggest as much. But Alden doesn’t help his soprano when this Ellen seems blithely determined to enjoy a sunny Sunday while the boy is so clearly traumatized (scene pictured above): odd psychology, even if it’s part of the at-loggerheads stylization. A roster of fine British singers doesn’t always make the mark it should for the same reasons:

Christine Rice especially is luxury casting as Auntie (pictured below in the foreground of a confusing Acr ! Scene 1), but the bafflement about Alden’s Sylvia von Hardenesque take on the pub landlady detracts from what little vocal lustre the role allows her to display. Her “nieces”, the underage “entertainment” for the Borough blokes, take up way too much stage space and time in weird routines and don’t sound as good as they should. No problems with the vocal calibre of Simon Bailey’s Balstrode, Clive Bayley’s Swallow, Alex Otterburn’s Ned Keene and David Soar’s Hobson. Veteran Anne-Marie Owens was not in best voice last night as an undercooked Mrs Sedley. Act ! Scene 1 in ENO Peter GrimesToo much doesn’t work in the production, though some things do spectacularly well. Paul Steinberg's sets and Adam Silverman's lighting, revived here by Gary James, serve Alden's concept well, less so at times the atmospheres of Britten's music. The grey dawn of Act 1 Scene 1, seen only through windows, finds the Borough inhabitants milling around the stage, the vignettes not allowed to take centre stage except for those irritting nieces; the hallucinatory dances in the Moot Hall, though, are ingeniously choreographed by Maxine Braham, Alden taking his cue from Britten’s homage to Berg’s Wozzeck and its tavern weirdnesses. The signalling in “Old Joe has gone fishing”, a tricky ensemble totally mastered, is good even if Grimes’s anguish doesn’t sear enough above it, and the movements go on too long towards the end of the act, while the tricky physical gestures in the climactic chorus work well. After that, the pathos of the final scene comes close to moving us. But still, not enough.

Elizabeth Llewellyn lives her luminous truth as best she can through the peculiarly motivated character of the not entirely sympathetic Ellen Orford


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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