Peter Grimes

Music Benjamin Britten, libretto Montagu Slater after George Crabbe
English National Opera
London Coliseum

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Gwyn Hughes Jones and ENO Chorus in Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
The Cast of ENO's Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Elizabeth Llewellyn in Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
John Findon, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Elizabeth Llewellyn in Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
The Cast of ENO's Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
The Cast of ENO's Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
The Cast of ENO's Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
David Soar and ENO Chorus in Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
Ronald Samm, John Findon, and David Soar in Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles
Simon Bailey and Gwyn Hughes Jones in ENO's Peter Grimes Credit: Tom Bowles

Composed post WWII, first performed by the ENO (then Sadler’s Wells Opera) in 1945, this David Alden production opened in 2009, I saw it in 2014, it was to figure in the ENO 2020 season, but COVID put paid to that, so it’s a pleasure to report that Benjamin Britten’s first opera, Peter Grimes, is opening the present ENO autumn season. It is not to be missed, if only for the 64-strong chorus—what a sound…

The hint of folk and hymn melodies fix the chorus in the volatile milieu of The Borough, they its easily swayed residents. Dramatic silences underline the sorrow and the pity. And so it goes.

There is so much to unpack, not least the timescale. Loosely based on son of Aldeburgh George Crabbe’s (1754–1832) Letter XXII (of an epic twenty-four published in 1810), The Poor of the Borough, many naturally find Dickensian elements in it, others explain Britten’s empathy for the ostracised Peter Grimes by citing Britten’s homosexuality and his conscientious objection.

His sitting out the war in America might not have gone down well with his hometown Aldeburgh community, either. Was there collective finger pointing? Plenty here. Was there an old busybody Mrs Selby (mezzo-soprano Anne-Marie Owens), laudanum junkied up to the eyeballs, who ‘knew’ that Grimes was a murderer? Not difficult to rouse a lynch mob.

But what has changed since—many today still as much commodities as the maltreated, malnourished boys Grimes buys from the workhouse and in turn abuses. Or the ‘Nieces’ Auntie, lesbian landlady of The Boar pub, exploits. Ned Keene, the quack apothecary, is a spiv; Methodist preacher Bob Boles (tenor John Findon) is a drunken hypocrite, frequent visitor to the pub. Lascivious lawyer Swallow can’t keep his trousers on. Not hard to imagine the post-war austerity and the grafting necessary to survive, souls for sale—we have it now.

Loner Peter Grimes, a mentally disturbed man in ‘clouds of grief’, living in cruel times, longs to make money from his catch and hence works his boys to ‘accidental’ death. He thinks if he has money he can marry widowed schoolmistress Ellen, who is optimistic, but the tragedy is that Grimes is his own worst enemy, a truly tragic antihero. The best advice he gets is from compassionate retired Captain Balstrode (bass-baritone Simon Bailey), who tells him to scupper his boat with himself in it. The sea will claim its own...

And what about the jingoism, the Union Jack flag waving at the street party celebrations? We never learn, do we? Set in the year it was composed, this is a cry for tolerance. The church in the shape of Rev Horace Adams (tenor Ronald Samm) is ineffectual, of course. Hobson’s (bass David Soar) atavistic drum wins the day.

It’s a magnificent production, whose impact has not dulled. Martyn Brabbins conducts with a light touch, but oh those lyrical musical interludes, invoking the sea and the sky, the light and the land, space for reflection. A release from the claustrophobia of a hidebound community—the beauty of what could be, entangled with fear, emotional desolation and longing. Weather, of course, controls the fishermen’s lives, all their lives.

There are several debuts tonight. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s (debut in the titular role) light tenor gains our tentative sympathy, one man against the mob and himself. Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn debuts in the role of Ellen Orford, whilst mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to revel in the role of a Brechtian Auntie pulling the strings of her “new relations”, her spaced-out, hopscotch prancing, robotically obedient Nieces, sopranos Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd, both debuting in their roles as baby dolls. There’s meta for you…

Or is it more child exploitation? The act two female quartet (Auntie, Ellen and two Nieces) justify their trade, to comfort men... no shame in the glorious singing... No shame in the row of drunken men pissing up a wall...

Bass Clive Bayley’s Swallow, a name borrowed from Shakespeare, is a creep but a pillar of society. Baritone Alex Otterburn is a naughty pleasure in his role of camel overcoat and fedora clad Ned Keene. Acting and body language (movement director Maxine Braham) impresses, underscoring the vocal range. There’s maybe a touch too much hyper-neurotic hand-jiving, but the collective finger-pointing is nightmarishly spot on.

There’s a hornpipe dancing actor, many extras and children—we must not forget the children, who might have stepped out of Oliver Twist. Paul Steinberg’s set is stunning with its lifting corrugated iron roof, its divided set, enhanced by Adam Silverman’s (revived by Gary James) cinematic lighting, giving it a Hitchcock or Powell and Pressburger period film look.

On second viewing, on the second night, with its tremendous cast and crew, Peter Grimes is a feather in ENO’s cap—stellar work all round.

You can find Crabbe’s poem online in full, but the excellent programme notes provide extracts.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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