Benjamin Britten, libretto by Montagu Slater
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
Recently director Phyllida Lloyd has not been exactly the darling of the opera world with her updating of the Ring for ENO at the Coliseum so it was with a little trepidation that I arrived at the Theatre Royal to see Opera North present her version of Britten's first big operatic success. This is a modern piece, first performed in 1945 although its setting is a century earlier, based on George Crabbe's poem The Borough, so surely it doesn't need to be updated? Perhaps not, but Lloyd does so anyway, setting it somewhere towards the end of the twentieth century.
Of course the subject matter is timeless - the fate of the outsider in an isolated, claustrophobic society - but there are too many references to the period ("buying" workhouse children and laundanum addiction being the most obvious) which sound not just anachronistic but very odd in a modern context. With that proviso, however, it has to be said that this Peter Grimes is a real success.
And its success is in no small measure due to Anthony Ward's design, built around nets and pallets, superbly lit by Paule Constable. The final scene - a huge net suspended tent-like from the flies, held by the men on the outside and being repaired by the women inside, all swaying slowly from side to side - will live long in my memory: as the music fades away, we hear the ropes creaking like the rigging of a ship and, as the lights slowly fade to blackout, we are mesmerised by the sway and the sound. It's a repeat of a scene in the first act and its reappearance here emphasises the monontony and sheer hardness of the lives of the people of Borough.
Other images are powerful too: the destruction of Grimes in effigy in Act III Scene 2, with the entire Opera North chorus at their best (and most menacing), carrying axes, flaming toches and even a chainsaw, really chills the blood, and the isolation of Grimes, all alone on a stage washed in green light is one of almost ineffable sadness.
Scenically and technically it is a very impressive production, but all that would count for nothing if the performances were not up to scratch. It is very definitely an ensemble piece and the 50-strong Opera North choreus, as ever, performs stunningly: whether erecting each individual scene's set, tearing the Grimes effigy to pieces or having a good old time in the pub, their movement and singing were effortless, a credit to both chorus master Anthony Kraus and movement director Kate Flatt.
And in Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts we have a Peter Grimes who can evoke both anger (at his seeming bad treatment of his apprentice, John) and compassion, both as he reveals the depth of his insecurity and, in particular, in his despair at John's death. A big, strong and imposing figure, he can nonetheless inspire us to pity. And his voice is powerful and moving throughout the very wide range which the part demands.
Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford), Christopher Purves (Captain Bulstrode), Yvonne Howard (Auntie), Alan Oke (Bob Boles), Ethna Robinson (Mrs Sedley) and Roderick Williams (Ned Keane), along with all the other, more minor principals, are equally impressive in both acting and singing.
Once we accept that the modernised setting requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, then this is a truly excellent production of the opera which lifted English opera out of the doldrums in which it had languished for so long.
The tour ends at Newcastle
J D Atkinson reviewed this production at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
Reviewer: Peter Lathan