Tuesday 10 October 2023

John Findon takes the title role in ENO's magnificent revival of David Alden's production of Britten's Peter Grimes

Britten: Peter Grimes - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)
Britten: Peter Grimes - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)

Britten:Peter Grimes; John Findon, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Bailey, Christine Rice, director: David Alden, Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 6 October 2023

David Alden’s production of Britten’s Peter Grimes has been a big success for English National Opera. A five-star job, really, long may it stay in the repertoire

Due to the unavailability of Gwyn Hughes Jones, the pivotal role of Peter Grimes fell to British tenor, John Findon, who fitted so well the sea boots of this lone and anguished fisherman.

Partly written in America during the Second World War where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were escaping war-torn Britain on a pacifist ticket, Peter Grimes was premièred by Sadler’s Wells Opera (later to become English National Opera) at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Islington, on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall with Peter Pears in the title-role.

First seen in St Martin’s Lane in 2009, revived in 2014 with Edward Gardner in the pit, David Alden’s realization of Peter Grimes (assistant: Ian Rutherford) originally featured Stuart Skelton in the title-role who delivered a brilliant performance while this fine production won a South Bank Sky Arts Award shortly after its première.  

Now with this second (and welcome) revival, opening English National Opera’s 2023/24 season, conducted by Martyn Brabbins (ENO’s musical director), the role of Peter Grimes fell to British tenor, John Findon (replacing Gwyn Hughes Jones due to illness) plunging himself wholeheartedly into this lonesome and anguished character in a telling and surefooted performance, with Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ellen Orford, and Simon Bailey as Captain Balstrode.

Britten: Peter Grimes - Rudy Williams, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)
Britten: Peter Grimes - Rudy Williams, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)

And the anguished cry of Peter Grimes ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ - deeply etched in Maggi Hambling’s 2003 sculpture Scallop on Aldeburgh’s north beach - penned by Montagu Slater whose libretto derives from George Crabbe’s 1810 poem The Borough and heard in the passage ‘Go there!’ (act 2, scene 2) is a lovely and inviting aria and thoughtfully sung with intensity and feeling by Findon. He looked the part of Grimes through and through and suspiciously alert to all the hypocrites and gossips of the Borough he shuns.

And one of the big scenes of the opera centres on Auntie, landlady of The Boar, the role so admirably sung by mezzo-soprano and ENO favourite, Christine Rice, looking like a Prince Orlofsky character dressed in pin-striped trousers holding court in the best tradition of any landlady while her two nieces (sopranos Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd) prove a good attraction at the pub clutching rag-dolls, playing street games and enjoying the attention being paid to them by some of the ‘regulars’.

A compelling performance came from another well-loved British mezzo-soprano, Anne Marie Owens, as the drug-taking Mrs Sedley, who sinks greatly beneath her station to get her fix but always ready (and at the forefront) to condemn Grimes for no apparent reason other than suspicion.

In fact, the scene at The Boar is memorable in so many ways but none more so than when Grimes stumbles into the bar well past closing time coming to collect his new apprentice (Boy: John/William Biletsky) claimed from the workhouse by Ellen Orford, a widow and former schoolmistress of the Borough, the role brilliantly sung and acted with so much dignity by Elizabeth Llewellyn who respected and understood the troubled and tormented soul of Grimes.

But in his hurried state, Grimes scarcely notices those around him as he broods on the stars singing that beautiful and desolate song the Great Bear aria: ‘Who can turn the skies back? And begin again...?’ Here you realise that’s he’s not the monster that everyone thinks he is. Abruptly, the scene ends with Grimes taking the boy - who eventually meets his end by falling down a cliff hurrying to get to his boat - to a great outcry.

What offers this production so much depth and interest are the strong and effective crowd scenes created by movement director, Maxine Braham. For instance, the opening scene was more than striking packed by local misfits, busybodies and all those annoying types crowding the back of the courtroom to witness the local coroner and drunkard, Swallow (sung cunningly by Clive Bayley) conducting an inquest into the death of William Spode, Grimes’ first apprentice, who died in his fishing boat. Although acquitted of any wrongdoing, the ‘locals’ thought otherwise and were out for his blood.  

The cast is further strengthened by Adam Sullivan as Bob Boles (fisherman and Methodist), David Soar (Hobson, the carrier) and Ronald Samm (Revd Horace Adams) while Alex Otterburn (Ned Keene) plays the role of apothecary with a touch of deviousness while getting the better of Mrs Sedley in their exchange of banned substances.

Apart from Ellen Orford the only other friend that Grimes could call on is retired old seadog, Captain Balstrode, boldly and authoritatively sung by Simon Bailey, who, despairingly, tells Grimes to go. Therefore, guilt-ridden and driven to near insanity following the death of his apprentices, he vanishes towards the open sea on an uncertain voyage, the scene so well illuminated by Adam Silverman’s moody lighting scenario (revival: Gary James) creating an overall stage picture of an eerie whitish-grey sky depicting so well an unsettled Suffolk seascape.

The end of Grimes. A person greatly misunderstood brought down by a load of busybodies, bigots and betrayers - and more! The next morning, fresh as a daisy, the Borough begins its day anew as if nothing has happened. A report circulates from the coastguard of a ship sinking off the coast. Amen!  

From the visual aspect, Paul Steinberg’s spartan, grey-coloured set captures so well the oft-bleak coastal landscape of Suffolk where Britten was born. Forming a rust-coloured corrugated-iron roof with breeze-block walls, the set, economically designed, I should imagine, also made way for Grimes’ hut, the coroner’s court, The Boar and even the promenade complete with a capstan while Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes harbour the attraction and design of the austerity post-war period of clothing where saving your coupon allowance could improve your look!

ENO’s chorus, well-trained by James Henshaw, are a magnificent bunch and heard to extremely good effect throughout the whole of the opera but I couldn’t quite fathom out while they were all waving Union Jacks at the end. Rule Britannia! Likewise, ENO’s orchestra did a fine job under Martyn Brabbins who drove his players to some excellent stuff particularly in the Sea Interludes and especially in ‘Storm’ (act one) with Grimes bracing himself against the wind to the approaching storm with the townspeople riding it out in the safety of The Boar with pint in hand.

Britten: Peter Grimes - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)
Britten: Peter Grimes - English National Opera (Photo: Tom Bowles)

I feel that this production of Peter Grimes fully equates with Peter Hall’s smashing production of Albert Herring for Glyndebourne. Long may they both keep their place in the repertoire.  

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

Under-21s are offered free tickets to all ENO performances at every level of the theatre while 21-35-year-olds can obtain discounted tickets.  Tickets start from £10 (plus booking fee). Box office: 0871 911 0200 www.eno.org

Director: David Alden
Assistant director: Ian Rutherford
Set designer: Paul Steinberg
Movement director: Maxine Braham
Lighting designer: Adam Silverman
Lighting (revival): Gary James
Costume designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Chorus director: James Henshaw
Dramaturgy: Michael Küster
Peter Grimes: John Findon
Ellen Orford: Elizabeth Llewellyn
Captain Balstrode: Simon Bailey
Auntie: Christine Rice
First niece: Cleo Lee-McGowan
Second niece: Ava Dodd
Bob Boles: Adam Sullivan
Swallow: Clive Bayley
Mrs Sedley: Anne-Marie Owens
Rev Horace Adams: Ronald Samm
Ned Keene: Alex Otterburn
Hobson: David Soar

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