Peter Grimes - Royal Opera House, 21 June 2011 (first night)
Willy Decker's 2004 production of Peter Grimes takes the Britain out of Britten and places the story somewhere far less specific. The sets are dark and spare and Expressionistic; the sombre costumes are vaguely 19th century. A swirling backdrop vaguely evokes storm-tossed waves, but that's as much seaside as you get.
What I missed most is that sense of English eccentricity that Britten so carefully painted into his quirky characters. This was brilliantly captured in the ENO's recent production by David Alden, an expatriate American with an inexplicable fascination for all things Blighty. Alden's Brits, despite all their pretences to individualism, succumbed in the end to the herd mentality. Regardless of what Britten's own intentions may or may not have been, it made for an absorbing dramatic trajectory. That's more than I can say for Decker's compliant shoals, who seem to have succumbed to Prussian-style conformism from the outset. Universal themes needn't imply a one-size approach. The lack of character definition made parts of the evening, especially the first half, a bit of a slog.
But he does pull off a few arresting stage pictures. Particularly memorable were the hellfire glow of the pub party, and the soldierly ranks of the citizens in their battleship-shaped church, all reading literally from the same hymn sheet.
At this stage in his career, Peter Grimes is perhaps Ben Heppner's finest role. Technically, he wouldn't score high, but the wear and strain in his voice perfectly suggest a man on the edge, and his wavering intonation underlines his tenuous status. Not usually the greatest of actors, he captures Grimes's brutality and insecurity in a convincing physical portrayal aided by his hulking frame and ambling gait (François de Carpentries deserves credit here for far better than usual revival direction).
Amanda Roocroft's Ellen Orford was strong and sympathetic, but uneven vocalism and woolly diction let her down a little. As Ned Keene, Roderick Williams was the standout amongst a competent but overly anonymous supporting cast, half-absorbed into the chorus (on superb form for the first time in a long while).
Andrew Davis's conducting was loud, efficient and intelligently calibrated, but didn't quite burst into flame until well past the halfway mark. Like the production itself, it remains curiously land-locked. I imagine this is one part of the show that will improve massively as the run progresses.
production photos (above): Clive Barda
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com (with thanks to Michael)