Premiering in 1945, Peter Grimes is arguably one of the greatest operas of the 20th century to be written by a British composer. It tells of a fisherman whose entire village community rails against him as his efforts to earn money, respect and the hand of the lady he loves see him go on dangerous ventures that result in the deaths of two apprentices.
English National Opera’s revival of its 2009 production of Benjamin Britten’s creation boasts most of its outstanding original cast. It is, however, Stuart Skelton’s reprisal of the title role that makes it unmissable once more. The control, beauty and power of his voice place him in the pantheon of great performers of the role. In writing the opera, Britten’s references to composers such as Verdi and Bach are well known but Skelton, through his own performance history and laser-like vocalism, makes the link to another rebel tenor – Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The chief newcomer to this revival is the South African soprano Elza van den Heever, fresh from singing Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda in New York. There is no hint of regality or exotic climes in this unadorned Ellen Orford, but neither is she the hopeless romantic so often portrayed. This is a steely Ellen who approaches problems rationally but who cannot know how damaged the people around her are. She is at heart still the young girl who can throw away her hat thrilled by the beauty of a shimmering, dazzling, sunlit Sunday morning on the beach.
Iain Paterson sings Captain Balstrode effortlessly. His realisation of the retired sea captain is younger than most, but this allows for a sense of rivalry between him and Grimes for the attention of Ellen. Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley is a fabulous ‘Miss-Marple-gone-off-the-rails’; perhaps she was once an Ellen herself. The luxury casting of Rebecca de Pont Davies as Auntie and Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan as her nieces proves its worth in the Act Two quartet with Ellen.
Dance is also an unusual aspect of this production, manifesting itself in a choral dance to the song “Young Joe has gone fishing” in Auntie’s parlour during the storm, and in the strange pairings and anonymous young sailor’s hornpipe outside the Moot Hall in Act Three.
By showing that incongruous juxtapositions are all around us – be it in dance partners, morals or manners – this production forces us to accept Grimes as being both sadistically cruel and having heroic, poetic aspirations.
By Nik Dasgupta
Until 27 February (eight performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with start times of 15.00, 18.00 and 19.00. For tickets (£16-£125) visit the Coliseum website.
On 23 February Peter Grimes will be broadcast live into cinemas across the UK and Ireland and to selected cinemas worldwide.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the ENO press team.