Benjamin Britten, libretto by Montagu Slater
Grand Theatre, Leeds
7th June 1945 was a red-letter day in the annals of English music. Sixty years after the event it's hard to imagine what the audience at Sadler's Wells were expecting to see as they took their seats - home-grown opera had been in the doldrums since the days of Purcell and Handel, so it's a fair guess that few people had particularly high hopes of Peter Grimes. Little did they know that they were about to witness both the premiere of a twentieth century masterpiece and the reawakening of English opera from its long sleep.
Opera North could not have chosen a more suitable work with which to celebrate another new beginning, the company's return to the refurbished Grand Theatre. For the first time in its history Opera North now has a rehearsal space - the Linacre Studio - the same size as the Grand Theatre's stage, and although work on the auditorium itself is far from complete, it's a joy to see this beautiful Victorian building finally getting the attention it deserves.
Peter Grimes is directed by Phyllida Lloyd, fresh from the critical mauling she received for her ENO Ring Cycle (yes, the one with Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber). Having directed Opera North's hugely successful productions of Britten's Albert Herring and Gloriana she must have been an obvious candidate for Grimes, but those of a nervous disposition will be relieved to hear that there isn't a stick of dynamite in sight - Lloyd has merely updated the story to what I assume to be the 1970s. Grimes, the surly loner suspected of beating and killing his boy apprentices, is kitted out in fluorescent orange wet-weather gear. Auntie wears the classic crochet waistcoat and her "nieces" - one of whom sports a Crystal Tipps hairstyle and kneesocks - are in urgent need of being taken in hand by the local Social Services.
Peter Grimes is undoubtedly a dark and disturbing work. The abuse and murder of children is always an emotive topic, as is the scapegoating of suspects, but it's difficult to see what Lloyd has gained by shifting the story from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century - references to workhouses, child apprentices and laudanum addiction sound a little strange sung by people who should really be more concerned about the fuel crisis and the Three Day Week. But although this aspect of the production sometimes strains one's suspension of disbelief to breaking point, musically the show is another triumph for Opera North.
The exceptionally strong cast includes Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Grimes), Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford), Christopher Purves (Bulstrode), Alan Oke (Boles) and Roderick Williams (Keene), all of whom give memorable performances. The members of Opera North's superb chorus are also called upon to haul aloft a huge fishing net and build elements of Anthony Ward's set from a stack of wooden pallets, the grace and skill with which they do so being a tribute to the work of Movement Director Kate Flatt. The scene in which a mob of townsfolk torment a straw effigy of Grimes and then set out to hunt down the man himself is shatteringly effective, but again Lloyd manages to introduce a distracting touch by arming them with everything from blazing torches to a chainsaw. One half expects to see Una Merkel and Leatherface lurking amongst the outraged citizenry.
The orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, gives a fine account of Britten's iridescent score. The six well-known orchestral interludes, originally designed to cover set changes and made somewhat redundant by the absence of traditional sets, are used to accompany interpolated scenes that comment on and flesh out the story. Purists may cavil at some of the liberties Lloyd has taken with the opera, but nothing can disguise the fact that Peter Grimes still has a strong claim to be the greatest English opera of the twentieth century.
At the Grand Theatre, Leeds - 4th November, 5th, 7th, 8th December
At the Lowry, Salford Quays - 8th, 11th November
At the Theatre Royal, Nottingham - 14th, 17th November
At Sadler's Wells - 23rd, 25th November
At the Theatre Royal, Newcastle - 29th November, 1st December
Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson