Peter Grimes - English National Opera, 18 May 2009
German Expressionist cinema seems to be having a bit of a 'moment' on the London stage. Last night I saw the National Theatre's new All's Well That Ends Well improbably backdropped by Murnau's Nosferatu. And despite ENO's misleading fishfinger-ad poster, above, David Alden's inspiration for Peter Grimes is his old friend The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
In echt Expressionist style we see the whole thing through the eyes of the protaganist, Peter Grimes. This is both the genius and the flaw of Alden's production. It isn't simply contrary to Britten's intentions. It also, inevitably, makes Peter Grimes himself a more sympathetic, understandable character. And, crucially, it removes the moral and dramatic ambiguity that underpins the work. Is Peter Grimes a serial child abuser, or just a misunderstood mistreated misfit? Britten wanted his audience to continue pondering that question even after they'd seen the whole show. But Alden eliminates any doubt. The opening trial is harsh and unfair, because Grimes of course sees it that way. And although he treats his new apprentice roughly, his death is directly due to the village mob, who scare Grimes so much that he lets go of the rope securing the boy. His 'mad' scene is subdued and introspective, his eventual end a noble sacrifice.
It's coherent, it works - on its own terms. I don't see the 'contradictions' that some of the press reviewers do. Stuart Skelton's huge ginger baby of a Peter Grimes is so perfectly wrought that his every action and perception is at one with his hulking vulnerability. But at the same time I didn't need the production to solve the puzzle for me. Motivations are rarely cut and dried in Britten. Doubt is a critical element not just here but in Billy Budd, Death in Venice, The Turn of the Screw. Applying the feelgood certainties of the Broadway musical to the subtly nuanced construction makes a less compelling drama of this simple story.
Massive though this flaw is, it's surprisingly easy to set aside. Indeed anyone who came to this production with no prior knowledge or background probably wouldn't even notice it. Alden believes utterly in his concept/perspective, and the production is immaculately crafted around it.
Skewed and sloping surfaces suggest a contorted and perverted reality, a community simultaneously falling apart and collapsing in on itself. Grimes feels scarcely more comfortable inside his vertiginously sloping hut than he does in the oppressive confines of the village. Only the wide open spaces of the beach and the sea, exquisitely evoked in dreamily-painted sky and grey northern light, offer his troubled mind any semblance of tranquillity.
Peter Grimes, isolated from the villagers, can barely tell them apart. So they are robotic drudges who can act only in perfect conformity (often strictly choreographed) with their neighbours. At the end, they turn into a baying mob of flag-waving little-Englanders, symptoms of a wider malaise.
The principal characters are grotesquely caricatured - Grimes sees them not as people but as a collection of faults, so that's how they're presented to us. Leigh Melrose's oily, spivvy Ned Keene, Matthew Best's tutu-sporting Swallow, Gerald Finley's one-armed yachtie Balstrode, Rebecca de Pont Davies's crop-haired trouser-suited Auntie and her demented twin schoolgirl Nieces (even Britten didn't bother to give them names, so why not?) are all beautifully drawn. The silent Apprentice is a huge, almost adult boy yet he cowers like a dog, a readymade receptacle for Grimes to offload his own persecutions.
Only Amanda Roocroft's warmly sympathetic Ellen Orford, the only one Grimes can trust and confide in, appears in a recognisably human light.
Stuart Skelton's definitive and often quite beautifully-delivered Grimes aside, the singing is technically patchy. But it's dramatically effective. Who cares if Amanda Roocroft screeches a few notes when she's playing a woman in the utmost turmoil? And Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley is a nutty old lady, so why shouldn't she sound like one? In fact every aspect of the acting is utterly convincing, from the blocking to the powerful individual conviction. These singers make some 'proper' actors look like rank amateurs.
Musically, it was a near-unqualified success. Since he joined as music director, Edward Gardner has deserved the highest praise for battling through a difficult job in often trying circumstances. No wonder he's going grey. I haven't always been equally impressed by his achievements in the pit. But this was his most complete and convincing display to date - firmly driven and punctuated by blistering bursts of power. Some of the ebb and flow of the sea was sacrificed to his implacable momentum, but the colours were rich and the detail always finely drawn. The ENO orchestra, rehearsed to near-perfection, were at their absolute best in the mini-dramas of the stormy Sea Interludes.
The 21 May performance is broadcast on Radio 3 on 11 July 2009 and not to be missed.
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