Peter Grimes is arguably the finest British opera of the 20th century. Benjamin Britten’s employment of George Crabbe’s poem, about a complex and flawed outsider brought down by an oppressive East Anglian community, combines a stunningly evocative score with dramatic depth and velocity.
This short run of Grimes at the Royal Opera House is a revival of Willy Decker's darkly Victorian production, last in London in 2004. In many ways, it is similar to the last Grimes seen in town, David Alden’s 2009 production at the ENO. Both hint heavily at Grimes’s mistreatment of his apprentice and both lean on the hyper-energy of the malevolent ‘Borough’ mob for dramatic force. Here, right from the opening scene, when Grimes faces his accusers for the first time, the large cast’s shoal-like reaction to Grimes’s movements bring the opera’s themes of small-town fear and persecution frighteningly to life.
But it is John Macfarlane’s set that makes this production. A sloping stage backed by a sea scene of Turner-esque brush strokes leaves an uncluttered space where the human drama can play out while the angry forces of nature, such an important aspect of Peter Grimes, can be satisfyingly suggested.
Against this backdrop, good individual vocal performances are overshadowed by the outstanding chorus and orchestra (conducted by Andrew Davis). Ben Heppner has the build and stage presence (but not the voice, which suffered) to bring off a solid Grimes and Amanda Roocroft makes a sympathetic Ellen Orford, but there are no truly stellar performances, except perhaps for Jonathan Summers as Captain Balstrode.
Perhaps that’s as well, as Peter Grimes is about the community, not Grimes himself. In the final scene, the production has Grimes’s failed saviour Ellen Orford reluctantly rejoining the ranks of the community. Compelled to sit in church and ignore her friend’s boat sinking at sea, she is the last figure to move on stage, taking her place and picking up her hymn sheet in a terrible act of conformity.
The next performances are on 24, 27 June, 1 and 3 July. Click here for tickets. Photo credit: Clive Barda