Deborah Warner’s New Peter Grimes Has it All at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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Premiering in 1945, with a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from George Crabbe’s eponymous narrative poem, Peter Grimes focuses on the type of outsider figure that always fascinated Benjamin Britten. Set in a nineteenth century Suffolk coastal village referred to simply as ‘the borough’, it focuses on the clash between Grimes, a hard working fisherman who dreams of wealth and respect, and a narrow-minded and repressive community who will never judge him kindly, irrespective of what he actually achieves.

When Peter’s boy apprentice dies while they are at sea, an inquest rules that the death was accidental meaning he will not face trial. However, the coroner Swallow interrogates Peter quite severely before delivering his verdict, and suggests he should not get another youngster as people do not forget incidents such as this. Peter protests that he cannot make a living without one, and the schoolmistress Ellen Orford who loves him proposes a solution whereby Peter obtains a child and she makes it her responsibility to care for it.

(Peter Grimes) ALLAN CLAYTON, (The boy) CRUZ FITZ ROH Peter Grimes 2022 © Yasuko Kageyama

Peter believes that by working hard he will gain enough wealth to silence all of his critics. He is consequently only willing to marry Ellen when he has gained the respect of the borough, even though it is clear she would gladly wed and care for him now. The difficulty is, as the retired merchant skipper Captain Balstrode knows too well, the respect Peter craves will never materialise, while his attempts to gain it could land him in further trouble. Working his new apprentice (Cruz Fitz) too hard and beating him, he attempts to go fishing on a Sunday for a large school of herring that no one else has spotted. In his forced haste to get to the boat, the boy slips as he descends the cliff from Peter’s house and dies.

When the community works out what must have happened, they brand Peter a murderer and attempt to hunt him down. Seeing there is no way out for the fisherman, Balstrode advises him to commit suicide by taking his boat out to sea and sinking it. This Peter does as the unreformed community goes about its normal business once more.

Deborah Warner’s new version for the Royal Opera, a co-production with the Teatro Real, Madrid (where it has already appeared), L’Opéra National de Paris and Opera di Roma, has everything as it features an effective concept, superb conducting, excellent singing and brilliant acting. The staging combines a certain realism, which suggests the sweat that underpins Peter’s way of life, with a touch of the ethereal, in line with his ability to dream. In Michael Levine’s set, the evening begins with a fishing boat hanging over the stage, which could signify Peter’s means to raise himself up or the weight that permanently hangs over him and could crush him at any moment. The opening scene sees the inquest look more like an interrogation as Swallow leans over Peter, who is reduced to rolling across the ground, while the rest of the cast shine torches on him in the dark. Not only are Peter Mumford’s lighting designs highly effective here, but at this stage the majority of figures appear in silhouette so that our focus is on the whole concept of a repressive community as opposed to the individuals who make it up.

The contrast between the gritty and ethereal is highlighted by keeping the sides of the stage open to highlight the ‘mechanics’ of the staging, while inserting a screen at its back that reveals a shimmering image of light falling on the sea. The setting is the modern day so that one of the Nieces takes a selfie with her mobile phone, while breeze blocks and traffic cones adorn the harbour. The Boar pub has a sunken floor so that people can become more prominent by standing at a higher level to the mass of people who sit beneath them, while the walls of Peter’s house on the cliff sharply recline in keeping with the landslide that is reported to have occurred and the obvious visual requirements for the scene.

(Ellen Orford) MARIA BENGTSSON, (The boy) CRUZ FITZ ROH Peter Grimes 2022© Yasuko Kageyama

If the community begin as a faceless mass, by the end they are more menacing and real than they ever normally seem to be in productions. This group of people do not confront the audience in a stylised manner as they cry for ‘Peter Grimes’ in Act III, but rather come across as disturbingly violent as they repeatedly slam an effigy of him to the ground.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Interludes simply see the curtain fall as the words ‘Interlude I’, and some blue strips of light that signify the sea and sky, appear. This is clever because it allows the music to speak for itself, uninhibited by excessive visual distractions, but the words are just enough to ensure we stay in the same zone as for the surrounding drama, when we would be unlikely to if we were simply left to stare at a blank curtain. 

Grimes twice spies the first apprentice (played by aerialist Jamie Higgins) moving through the air so that he could be either flying or drowning. This highlights the thin dividing line between dreams and despair, and sets up an important relationship between Peter and his apprentices that this production then exploits to the full. The flying device is used sparingly enough to ensure that we do not feel hit around the head with the point it is making, and it certainly helps that the two pieces of music to which the apprentice appears are very different. This enables one appearance to be associated with the nightmare of a storm, while the other allows for more reflection and contemplation on Grimes’s part.

Before the second apprentice dies Grimes relives the death of the first to such an extent that the second is visibly moved, and appreciative that there may be a tender person beneath the brutal exterior he has always seen. In fact, he places his hand on Peter’s forehead, thus reversing the roles that the two would have played when Peter vainly tried to nurse the dying first apprentice in his fishing boat. It still remains telling that this second apprentice does not die because Peter loses his grip on the rope he is lowering him by, but rather because he is so focused on combating the approaching locals that he neglects to hold it altogether. It is the opera’s final image, however, that confirms the idea that Peter and his apprentices are ultimately one and the same. Not only do they all end up dead, but each is naive while also being possessed of enormous potential that is never allowed to come to fruition. 

Sir Mark Elder’s conducting is excellent, as he astutely observes all of the rhythms that are inherent in the score while also capturing something of its sweeping nature. When everyone is sheltered in The Boar in Act I, he effectively sees each ‘refrain’ of the storm music convey something of the cyclical nature of the scene, in keeping with the regular arrivals of people who tend to bring further bad news, while also ensuring that it does have an overall sense of progression so that the tension really builds over it. 

(Captain) Balstrode BRYN TERFEL, (Peter Grimes) ALLAN CLAYTON ROH Peter Grimes 2022 © Yasuko Kageyama

Allan Clayton is a world class Peter Grimes as both his singing and acting prove superb. His Act III ‘soliloquy’ is particularly moving as he is able (paradoxically perhaps) to use his most secure tenor instrument to convey Peter’s total loss of grip on reality. Just how convincing he is is revealed by his vague nod of the head to Balstrode’s suggestion that he sink his boat, as if he has no fibre of mental strength left to resist the instruction. His presence is also notably strong as the audience instantly feel for themselves Peter’s ability to silence a hitherto noisy pub, whether it be because those assembled are simply made to feel awkward, or are positively frightened, by him.

Maria Bengtsson is also a very fine Ellen as her soprano is quite rich and sumptuous, yet also sensitive enough to convey a deeply caring person who seeks a simple and happy, as opposed to prestigious but unachievable, life. Sir Bryn Terfel is on tremendous form as Balstrode, using his firm bass-baritone to convey a man who seeks to be the voice of moderation and reason. There is also brilliant support from Sir John Tomlinson as Swallow, Jacques Imbrailo as Ned Keene, Rosie Aldridge as Mrs Sedley, John Graham-Hall as Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Rev. Horace Adams, Stephen Richardson as Hobson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as ‘Auntie’ and Jennifer France and Alexandra Lowe as her ‘Nieces’. A streaming of this Peter Grimes will be available via the Royal Opera House Stream webpage between 8 April and 8 May 2022. 

By Sam Smith

Peter Grimes | 17 - 31 March 2022 | Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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