ROBERT HUGILL was at the
opening performance of
English National Opera's 'Peter Grimes'
When David Alden's new production of Peter Grimes for English National Opera at the London Coliseum opened (seen Saturday 9 May 2009), Paul Steinberg's set was a relatively plain box and the chorus were confined to the rear. From the outset the crowd were unsympathetic, adding jeers to their comments. There was no attempt to set the scene realistically as an inquest, but as Matthew Best's strong Swallow mentioned witnesses they stepped forward, thus helping us to identify them. Stuart Skelton's bulky Peter Grimes was isolated from the crowd from the start.
For the opening of Act 1 the set remained substantially the same, so that instead of taking place on the open quayside, the action took place in a fish processing shed with no view of the sea. This lack of an open view seemed to be deliberate: Alden's take on the people of the Borough emphasised their narrow closed-in nature. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes established the time period as the 1940s, presumably intended to reflect the troubled time when Britten and Pears left England as conscientious objectors.
In the opening scene of Act 1, Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, neatly establish all of the characters and Alden used this to introduce us to his version of events. Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) had a mannish hair cut, wore a man's three piece suit and tie, and topped the whole outfit by carrying a cane. Her nieces (Gillian Ramm, Mairead Buicke) were rather disturbingly dressed as schoolgirls carrying dolls (dressed in the same clothes as the nieces). Their behaviour was strange, almost autistic and they had a way of creepily insinuating themselves into the action, whether singing or not. Ned Keene (Leigh Melrose) was a pill-popping caricature of a spiv. Mrs Sedley was a drug-addled mad old lady. And so it continued.
Instead of creating a cast of characters who fitted naturally into the life of the Borough, Alden created a group of caricatures, backed by the scary chorus. From the outset you realised that the Borough was a terrible place, full of in-bred oddities. In fact if the League of Gentlemen did Peter Grimes as a Christmas special then it would be very like this, with the Borough as Royston Vasey.
This meant that only the three principals, Grimes (Stuart Skelton), Ellen Orford (Amanda Roocroft) and Balstrode (Gerald Finley) were anything like normal. But Ellen seemed to be emotionally damaged by her widowhood, something beautifully captured by Amanda Roocroft. And Balstrode wasn't the bluff retired sea-dog usually portrayed, but instead a relatively young naval captain retired due to ill health (he lacked an arm). This altered the dynamic and later in the opera Alden and Finley made it very clear that Balstrode was in love with Ellen himself.
I had always believed that the intention of Britten and Slater was to portray how the Borough's hounding of Grimes comes out of nothing and goes back to nothing, how ordinary people can do extraordinary acts. This is why the very closing scene of the opera is intended to portray the same type of events as the opening of Act 1, the borough just starting another day with Grimes forgotten.
But here, Alden's vision of dystopia meant that the Borough were culpable from the start and Grimes was not punished for being different to the ordinary folk, but for being different to a bunch of weirdos. The dramatic balance was completely altered. The result worked dramatically and Alden got good performances out of his cast, but this was Grimes warped and distorted.
The chorus created a single, rather bigoted unit from the start. By the time we came to the end of the scene in The Boar, the chorus were really scary indeed. So much so that you wondered where there was to go when they were whipped up into a frenzy in Act 3.
Any tolerance I had for Alden's view of the work rather evaporated in the opening scene of Act 3 where the dance in the moot hall was turned into a bizarre fancy dress ball where everyone behaved as badly as possible. Ned Keene was drunk, or worse, Swallow wore a pink tutu and danced on top of a bucket. Auntie wore an animal's head, and the Revd Horace Adams (Stuart Kale) seemed to be having sex with another man. The crowd scene at the end of this was very scary indeed, but Alden seemed to be implying that this was a VE Day celebration or something as they all brought out union flags at one point. The chorus' antagonism was hardly as scary as it should have been as it wasn't a surprise, given their earlier behaviour.
In amongst this rather unsatisfactory state of things, Stuart Skelton created a superb portrait of Grimes. Skelton's Grimes is beautifully sung and I hope he manages to keep this as he develops the role dramatically. At the moment the main weakness was that his violence was not really believable. I remember Jon Vickers in the role, using his bulk to make us believe in a man whose physical frustration would lead him to lash out. Vickers was profoundly gifted in the Inn scene and in Grimes' final scene when he vividly portrays Grimes' poetic nature and madness. Skelton has not quite got this aspect yet; he suggests the poetry and the madness but could make it more vivid, more innate in Grimes' character. That said, Skelton's Grimes was one of the best portrayals of the role I have heard in recent years. He is a relatively young singer and has a lot of time to develop his fine portrayal.
I don't think that Amanda Roocroft is one of the world's natural Ellen Orfords. The high lying cantilena of the embroidery aria and other sections did not come easily to her. But that said, this was her role début and the role will bed into her voice. Where she was convincing was in conveying Ellen's troubles: I have never seen a production in which Ellen's damaged nature was so vividly conveyed. Here, Ellen's love wasn't disinterested: it arose out of her own desperate need. She and Grimes were two damaged creatures trying to come together, and inevitably failing.
Gerald Finley's beautifully-sung Balstrode formed a third in this damaged relationship. I missed the sense of distance that having Balstrode as an older voice can bring, Finley's Balstrode was deeply involved in the relationship between Ellen and Grimes. In fact, there were times when Finley's singing seemed too beautiful; you wanted something rougher, more down to earth.
For the opening of Act 2 and the close of the opera Paul Steinberg did open the stage up, giving us a view of an endless and stormy horizon. At the close, when Grimes has gone, Alden made his final disturbing alteration to the dramaturgy. Instead of reverting to the opening of Act 1 scene 1, the chorus simply assembled and instead of going about their daily tasks, the focus was very much on Ellen Orford's pain and grief. Though Roocroft portrayed this wonderfully, it was a mistake; at the end we should get some feeling for the cycle of life going on.
The smaller roles were all well cast and all the singers created the sort of distorted characters which Alden wanted. Leigh Melrose was a finely acted Ned Keene; Rebecca de Pont Davies' Auntie became a sort of commentator, laughing at the action; Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke were suitably (or unsuitably) disturbing as the nieces. Michael Colvin was an intolerant Bob Boles, but in amongst all the madness he was simply one of many. Matthew Best was a strong Swallow. Stuart Kale as Revd Horace Adams and Darren Jeffery as Hobson both created neat characters. Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley was wonderfully demented.
The diction from all concerned was exemplary and we did not need surtitles.
Whilst I had my doubts about Alden's production, there is no doubting that he got superb performances from cast and chorus. This, combined with Edward Gardner's fine musical direction meant that from a musico-dramatic point of view, the evening was a triumph. I cannot remember the last time that ENO created such a coherently brilliant musical evening.
Copyright © 13 May 2009
ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA
REBECCA DE PONT DAVIES