You can take the opera out of the opera house but you can’t take the opera house out of the opera – not when the spirit of David Alden’s benchmark 2009 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes resides so potently in English National Opera’s collective psyche. Company members may have come and gone in the interim but a potent sense of ownership remains and by the time the storm unleashed its fury, edgy and dangerous under Edward Gardner’s no holds barred direction, and Stuart Skelton’s heart-breaking and magnificently sung Grimes had stood in its eye and seen and felt what he alone could see and feel we were in the grip of something very special.
It had begin shakily with a tentative Prologue whose delicate dynamics seemed to have been thrown by the arrival of a substitute Swallow (Mark Richardson) brandishing his interrogation notes in the very real hope that they contained what he needed to ask. The Borough characters assembled – studies in black – with vestiges of their personalities reflected in well-chosen props from the Alden staging. There was Auntie, for instance – Rebecca de Pont Davies looking for all the world like an ash blond male impersonator out of an expressionist Otto Dix painting – and her nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke) clutching at sinister dolls of themselves; there was Leigh Melrose’s slick, main-chancing apothecary (read “dealer”) Ned Keene in his cool trilby; and Dame Felicity Palmer’s rasping black spinster Mrs Sedley. All of them damaged, either mentally or physically, or both.
It’s such a perfect piece – not a misplaced note anywhere – that skill and conviction will nail it every time. It did so here with a vengeance brewing its head of steam from the energy of the approaching storm – “Now the flood tide and the sea-horses” – with jagged syncopations destabilising everything. The scene between Iain Paterson’s limping Captain Balstrode and Skleton’s Grimes was as thrilling as I’ve seen and heard it. Paterson has never done anything better than this, every word a challenge, his protective friendship of Grimes tempered with a stern sense of reality – and that moment where Grimes chooses to align himself with the storm and surrender his soul to it – “the storm is here and I SHALL STAY” – Skelton wrenched up an elemental power from somewhere very deep inside.
No one currently sings the part better, more beautifully, more powerfully. There is not that problem in the upper range where the high break in Peter Pears’ voice has proved and will prove awkward for generations of singers. His moments with Amanda Roocroft’s affecting Ellen Orford were doubly heartrending for him so clearly wanting to hold her and keep her close. And when he finally walked away into and through a sea of promenaders it was as if we were quite literally taking him into our collective hearts.
Final words for Edward Gardner’s fantastic grasp of this great work’s unremitting drama, the courage and dynamism of the ENO orchestra and chorus, both centre-stage for once. The manhunt scene with its violent semaphore of blackshirt salutes and fists was chilling and then some as Britten’s innocuous little cabaret tune morphed into a monstrous baying for blood. Too bad some idiots started to applaud where the roar of the mob cut-out to deafening silence punctuated only by the distant moan of the foghorn. Such a great example of Britten’s innate theatrical nous. Hopefully the BBC engineers can edit that out for posterity.