Any enemy will do, in the depressed, repressed, scuzzy coastal town that is at the heart of director Deborah Warner’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The composer set his 1945 masterpiece in his home county of Suffolk, before towns such as Aldeburgh and Southwold became choice and sought-after Islington-on-Sea. But Warner knows that life for many where the land runs out is more catastrophe than Cath Kidston.
At the mercy of the elements, and pretty much ignored otherwise, listless people vent their frustrations with the help of drink, drugs and the toxic nourishment of envy. And in their midst is Peter Grimes, a lone fisherman who is reviled as much for his poetic soul as for his self-reliance.
The mob turns nasty in Peter Grimes. Photo: Yasumo Kageyama
After the death of one apprentice, Grimes secures a second, against the advice of the court that does not blame him for the first loss. This inquest we revisit in Grimes’s opening dream, the vengeful townspeople looming over him by torchlight, baritone John Tomlinson in an all-star cast presiding briskly over proceedings, and the dead boy floating above Grimes as the sky becomes the sea.
Among Grimes’s few defenders is the teacher Ellen Orford, a young widow who sees good qualities below the awkward surface of this clumsy bear of a man. He would marry her; she would take him. But this simple solution defeats them in a tragedy of unvoiced passion.
In her very complex role, in an updating of Peter Grimes to present day, soprano Maria Bengtsson must be both compassionate and misguided, for she supports Grimes’s taking on a second lad in what we now recognise as child slavery. Whether a 21st-century Ellen Orford rings true is debatable, and that makes Bengtsson’s job especially challenging.
She befriends the damaged boy, skipping church and picnicking and knitting on the beach in her Nordic yoke sweater and skinny jeans. But spotting a shoal of fish, Grimes takes the lad and puts to sea in a storm…
The Borough turns on compassionate Ellen Orford (Maria Bengtsson). Photo: Yasumo Kageyama
Seething always in the background of this pitiful triangle is the pinched and pious Borough, as created by poet George Crabbe on whose work Britten based his opera. The flock of an ineffectual vicar sung by tenor James Gilchrist includes Rosie Aldridge’s laudanum-addicted busybody Mrs Sedley and her pusher, Ned Keene, sung by baritone Jacques Imbrailo as a knowing wide boy, Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s pub landlady and her ‘nieces’, sopranos Jennifer France and Alexandra Lowe bottom-wiggling in minimal denim.
The great Act One pub scene is a chance to unwind from the tension of the piece as a song and dance gets under way, but the bar in Michael Levine’s design is sunken and we have a disturbing viewpoint into this hellish pit, so that even this brief respite is claustrophobic.
Outstanding in this starry cast is bass-baritone Bryn Terfel who, like Ellen Orford, sees into Grimes’s troubled soul. Not afraid of warmth and tenderness, unlike his puny-minded fellow townsfolk, he finds a way out for Grimes as the lynch mob approaches.
And as the tortured seafarer himself, tenor Allan Clayton wins our hearts from the outset, for all his misjudgments, with the sheer beauty of tone in a voice whose delicacy and refinement belies the heft of Grimes.
There is outstanding singing from Bryn Terfel and Allan Clayton. Photo: Yasumo Kageyama
In the pit, conductor Mark Elder draws magical effects from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The six Interludes, pausing the action and played against lighting designer Peter Mumford’s atmospheric colour fields – now Turner, now Rothko, are a musical feast in their own right.
The Royal Opera Chorus, as ever, adds many colours more, every member a plausible figure in the borough – each singer has been accorded their own character and backstory.
After her outstanding 2019 production of Billy Budd with Imbrailo in the title role, Warner continues her winning run through Britten’s operas, with a lot of help from world-class singing. Very much about her updating of Peter Grimes works: we know how suspicious of others left-behind people can be. And where that leads.
Peter Grimes is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on 20, 23, 26, 29 and 31 March. Click here to book
|What||Peter Grimes, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
17 Mar 22 – 31 Mar 22, Six performances. Start times vary. Running time c 3hr 30min with one interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|