It would seem reasonable to expect a company called the English National Opera to be particularly good when it comes to English opera, and fortunate that this seems to be the case. Musically, this production of Peter Grimes was excellent, pretty much without a weak link. The company, both principals and chorus, were not only in fine voice, but gelled to an unusual degree, and really gave the impression of a tightly-knit community supportive of those who embraced convention and punishing to those who challenged it. However, perhaps it was my close view from the front of the dress circle, but many of those on stage seemed to me to be overacting to the point of pantomime (again). For example, I have no problem with Ned Keene (Leigh Melrose) being portrayed as a nasty, lecherous sleazebag, but did he really need to spend so much time gyrating his hips and groping his own groin area (or other people’s)?
Gerald Finley also spent the entire performance with one hand down his trousers, but this was for an entirely different reason; because the character of Captain Balstrode apparently has only one arm, whereas Mr Finley is blessed with two. As has been the case on most occasions I have seen him perform, he sang beautifully, acted compellingly, looked handsome, and didn’t get to sing half as much as I would have liked him to.
I was very impressed by Stuart Skelton in the title role. He created a truly complex character from Grimes, conflicted and disturbed, neither wholly innocent nor guilty, well-meaning in intention but brutish in action. He was able to make the audience feel his frustration at needing help with his work, but having acquired an apprentice who refused to work, speak, or even put on wellies. (Of course, this is not particularly surprising behaviour in a traumatised orphan child, and most certainly does not deseve beating, but the fact that we can sympathise at all with Grimes does Skelton credit.) His singing was highly expressive, using a great variety of tone colours and dynamics, which were particularly effective towards the top of the tessitura. Amanda Roocroft was also in fine form as Ellen, throwing herself into another troubled ‘heroine’, with a few moments of shriekiness at the top, but otherwise singing with clarity and control. For some reason, I did not find the blend of their two voices worked well at all, but this was not a big issue, as Peter and Ellen do not actually sing together that much.
The overall look of the production was drab, plain and grey-toned, with a very attractive luminescent (but still mostly grey) clouded skyscape as backdrop. The cast were mostly also drably dressed, although some of them did put on mildly ridiculous fancy dress for the party in Act 3. They were generally menacing, full of repressed violence and herd mentality, occasionally all brandishing bibles or Union flags in a kind of fascistic salute. However, there were other exceptions to the ‘herd’ other than Peter and Ellen. ‘Auntie’ (Rebecca de Pont Davies) was a natty sharp-suited transvestite, for example. Her nieces (Gillian Ramm and Mairead Buicke) were simply weird; mostly sporting school uniforms, they jerked and flopped around the stage like a pair of zombie Lolitas, playing hopscotch, putting on a dead-eyed faux-lesbian show, or doing strage synchronised robotic dance moves. They made a pleasant noise when singing, but when not singing I wished they’d just piss off. Of the other roles, I liked Matthew Best’s ringing bass voice (as Swallow), and Felicity Palmer’s take on Mrs Sedley – as a bitter and vitriolic, drugged-up Miss Marple.
When it came to curtain calls, there was, rightly, enthusiastic applause for all performers, but the loudest, and I believe rightly, was reserved for the orchestra and Edward Gardner. With the extended instrumental passages provided by Britten, they really had a chance to show what they could do, and it was superb. At the risk of descending into pretentious cliche, I could practically smell the salt spray, and at the first stirrings of the storm it felt like the ambient temperature dropped by a few degrees. Naturally I take special notice of the flute section, and Britten was a gifted composer for the flute. Jaime Martin on principal was particularly brilliant , varying his tone from liquid silk to serrated steel, with Alan Baker spiky or gossamer on piccolo. I was also particularly impressed with the viola section and the upper brass, but in truth all sections, without exception, were excellent. I hope the ENO do more Britten soon; I’ll go and hear them play it.