Peter Grimes: Opera Review: ENO

February 5, 2014

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten at English National Opera


Taken from the Victorian poem The Borough by George Crabbe the plot of Grimes is grim indeed, he’s a rough bully from a mean family without much sympathy and in the habit of beating his young apprentices to death.  Britten reworks Grimes into a misunderstood loner; a strong complex individual against a closed, narrow minded and simple minded community, but he still beats the young men, they still die.  There’s been endless conjecture and analysis of the fact that this opera reflects the queer pacifists nature of Britten & his Partner, but it seems here that it’s more about the small minded closed nature of British small town life and it’s brutal rejection of difference than about the freedom of choice and personal complexity.  There is also the echo’s of the Nazi mob in this work, the world – Britten’s world- gone mad.

Read the synopsis here:

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David Alden directs this dark and deep production as it swirls in the grey mists of some mean pinched post war weary world. There’s little hint of the fishing community or finer character roles written by Britten, this set design from Paul Steinberg is rusty corrugated iron and hash lighting and the tight focus is on the music and singing, pared down, brutish and short. It sounds flat and dull but it’s dramatically vivid.

Stuart Skelton as Grimes and Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford are exceptional, bringing real life and a spark of individual reason to this world of conformity and non thinking mob action and reaction.

Rebecca de Pont Davies as the creepy mysterious lesbian Aunty is a crepuscular delight too, like an erotic Aunt Sally, all rouge and roughish charm, her voice cuts to the quick of this opera and keeps us focused on the narrative tide as it flows and floods to it’s morbid conclusion.

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Felicity Palmer as Mrs Sedley is the hissing judgmental voice of the mob, and is as nasty and unkind as her voice is pure delight.

See the trailer here:

I’m no fan of Britten but this production is a real winner on a number of levels, the singing of Skelton, Van Den Heever and Davis combine with the raw power of the ENO chorus to make this a breathless event of pure theatrical electrical energy, Book now, I said now.

All the singers are wonderful, there’s not one weak voice amongst them and this casting provided a night of thrilling engagement with the audience.

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If you can’t make it to the ENO this production will be screened live to cinemas across the UK on Sunday 23 February.

The ENO chorus are worth swooning over in this production, their diction shrill and perfect, their movements as tight and nerve tingling as the singing and they bring a real sense of menace and fear to the nights events. They are a human storm of contempt. They snarl and jeer, catcall and howl their collective judgement on Grimes and all his supposed crimes against the town; I found them difficult to endure as they were a vicious vital mob. As a gay man, another outsider, this is a difficult opera to watch without squirming. They spat it out, all of them; it was terrific and terrible at the same time, quite a perfect piece of staging. I was aghast at them.

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Edward Gardner is in control of the orchestra from the off and he weaves the complex musical tapestries of this music allowing the seascapes of Britten’s music to flow and ebb alongside the story, his passionate conducting really makes the music shine.

This is an astonishingly good revival and highly recommended. It all falls into place and makes this a utterly absorbing and engaging eventing out at the ENO, not a fun one, but one which will leave you wide eyed and breathless and happy to live somewhere outside the world of The Borough’s thuggish folk.

For more info or to book tickets see the ENO website here.

London Colosseum

St Martins Lane, London

Until Feb 27

February 8, 14, 21, 23 & 27

Running time: 3hrs 10mins (including 2 intervals)