Monday 3 February 2014

Peter Grimes: all is lost

Stuart Skelton in David Alden's production of Britten's Peter Grimes, ENO. Credit Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton in Peter Grimes at ENO
Picture credit Robert Workman
Benjamin Britten - Peter Grimes: ENO at London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 28 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Compelling and disturbing, with strong performances and music

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, at the ENO was a compelling and disturbing opera, with strong performances and music. This was the first repeat (seen 28 January 2014) of David Alden's 2009 production and brought back Stuart Skelton, as the title character, and Edward Gardner, to conduct the orchestra. While I felt that some of the characterisations were too far fetched, the question is would the production have been as powerful without these excesses?

The story of Peter Grimes is a disturbing look at a micro society. Based on George Crabbe's poem The Borough, the anti-hero Grimes is a bully, wife-beater and a child abuser. Yet Lear-like it is his mistaken pride which is his downfall, the death of two apprentices, and leads eventually to his suicide - as being the only way out.

None of the characters are that likeable. Ellen (Elza van den Heever) loves Grimes, but is unable to stand up to him or turn him from his path of self destruction. Mrs Sedley (Felicity Palmer) is ostensibly a nasty busybody, certainly she is responsible for initiating all rumours and public outcry. But she is also a whistleblower who foresaw the tragedy of Grimes’ life and the death of his apprentice. Throughout it all an observer is left with the impression that if only the community had looked after Grimes instead of persecuting him, at least two deaths could have been avoided.

Elza van Heever and members of ENO in David Alden's production of Britten's Peter Grimes, ENO. Picture credit Robert Workman
Elza van Heever & members of ENO in Peter Grimes
Picture credit Robert Workman
This production placed practically everyone in the deviant corner. Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) was a sharp suited, fur coated spiv and her nieces (Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan), with their heads tilted to one side and automaton movements, were unsettling and in need of a quiet chat with a psychiatrist. These interpretations fitted in with the staging - Auntie’s pub was a bootleg lounge - but meant that other scenes, such as when they sympathise with Ellen about Grimes’ bullying, were less believable.

Farce and cross dressing abounds. There was Auntie of course, but there was also a costume party scene which seemed to come out of last year’s production of Die Fledermaus, including a man in a pink tutu. The mayor is caught with his pants down, a row of men used one wall as a urinal, and Mrs Sedley was repeatedly mauled. For me the outlandish portrayal of the characters reduced the contrast between what should be the ordinariness of the people and their close-minded mob-rule behaviour in dealing with Grimes.

But other elements of the production worked well. The malevolence of the church goers as they turned into a vicious mob was enhanced by their odd synchronous movements. The hand jiving also meant that you could easily see who was singing what, when, in the choral numbers, and increased the feeling of fanaticism emanating from them. The crowd also embodied the sea and storm - linking the idea that their behaviour towards Grimes was as inevitable and an unavoidable force.

ENO’s normally impressive use of minimal staging was a little strained in the first act. Lots of what looked like lino covered everything, and a lack of definition meant that the opera could have been set anywhere - from a village hall to a factory. It was up to the performers to define the space. In keeping with the characterisations the village pub became a back room speakeasy where the booze was in boxes on the floor not behind a bar and Auntie held court centre stage – not necessarily a focal point for an ordinary town. Elsewhere I am sure I saw parts of the Satyagraha staging, however the settings for Grimes’ cabin and the beach/ harbour were beautifully done.

Stuart Skelton’s reprisal of the role was an insular, self absorbed Grimes. Even when singing quietly his projection and clarity of diction meant that we could hear every word, and his stage presence was mesmerising as we followed Grimes’ fall into despair. Elza van den Heever, as Grimes’ girlfriend Ellen Orford was a definite star of the show. This was her London operatic debut and she claimed the stage without overshadowing the rest of the cast.

Another newcomer was Iain Paterson playing Balstrode, the only other sympathetic character on stage. Felicity Palmer was a nasty Mrs Sedley, Rebecca de Pont Davies an ambiguous Auntie (not quite the centre of the community), and Leigh Melrose was comedic as the predatory Ned Keene. Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan were impeccable and attention grabbing in their roles as the nieces. On stage for practically the whole time they maintained their doll-like personas throughout.

The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, got their teeth into Britten’s music which was suitably dramatic with lots of solo sections and tight small groupings. The burbling water and storm scenes were vividly played. The way it is composed there is incidental music during scene changes where the orchestra get to be a concert orchestra instead of accompanists and the ENO Orchestra manage both with ease.

This production will be broadcast live to cinemas on the 23rd February.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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