In 1945, Benjamin Britten struck gold with his first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes.
His earlier opera Paul Bunyan was withdrawn after its first appearance, but the composition of Grimes surprised audiences and critics alike with its originality, dramatic flair and virtuosity, and has long been seen as a historical turning point in the history of opera - particularly British opera.
Not since Purcell in the 17th century had a British composer written a work of such widespread significance.
Although many of Britten's other operatic compositions are flawed either dramatically, musically or both, Grimes is a near-perfect masterpiece which deserves to be regularly revived. The London Symphony Orchestra gave an outstanding concert performance of the work in January to inaugurate its centenary celebrations, but now the Royal Opera has managed to top that experience in a production new to Covent Garden, originally seen in Brussels ten years ago.
Some members of the press have criticised the removal of the classic Elijah Moshinsky production in favour of this new one by Willy Decker, yet Moshinsky's version had become staid and excessively literal in its interpretation of the story, and the sets were looking tired. Therefore, it was a joy to experience the far more symbolic, darker and atmospheric interpretation of Decker, with designs by John Macfarlane and lighting by David Finn.
The opera tells of the struggles of the fisherman, Peter Grimes, against the townspeople of the Borough. His carelessness leads to the deaths of two of his young boy apprentices, and the opera's opening scene plunges straight into the public enquiry into the death of the first boy. The stark black setting and the closely huddled-together chorus set against the isolated figure of Grimes at the front of the stage instantly captured the situation of the Borough society. Grimes was shown leaning over the pale coffin of the dead boy in agony, unable to comprehend his own actions. Only the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, has sympathy for Grimes, and her love is returned, but Grimes refuses to marry her until he has enough money to support her. He disobeys the court's orders by getting another apprentice, who is treated roughly by Grimes and accidentally slips off a cliff on his way to Grimes' boat. Persuaded by Captain Balstrode, his only friend other than Ellen, that he has no other option, Grimes sails out to sea and drowns himself.
Decker's production, unlike most others you will see, emphasises the role of Ellen Orford in the opera. She is frequently placed between the people of the Borough and Grimes, trying to stop the latter from his self-destructive streak whilst being forced to conform to the Borough's rules. The closing scene was particularly effective. The chorus was seated on bare wooden chairs set out as if in church, and when the news of Grimes' death is brought in, first they, then Balstrode, and finally - and most heart-rendingly - Ellen, pull their hymn sheets across their faces to show their ignorance of the opera's action now that Grimes - the 'outsider' - is dead.
In the title role, Ben Heppner was phenomenal. Not only was the voice powerful and beautiful but his attention to word-painting was exemplary. His acting was also excellent, not least in the difficult 'mad scene'. Next year he returns to Covent Garden in the title role of Verdi's Otello; it will be unmissable.
Ellen Orford was sung, as in the LSO's concert performance, by the London-born soprano Janice Watson. Her performance was even better than earlier in the year, full of dramatic nuance, and I found her much more engaging than usual. Her vocal reserves were also more impressive than in her otherwise enjoyable performance of the Marschallin in last year's ENO production of Der Rosenkavalier. As Ellen, she gave a multi-faceted interpretation of the role, and was especially refined in the Embroidery aria.
The Royal Opera had assembled a luxury cast for the smaller roles. Sarah Walker was brilliant as the interfering Mrs Sedley, Anne Collins provided comic relief as the landlady of the pub, 'Auntie', and above all Alan Opie was commanding as Captain Balstrode. A special mention for Ailish Tynan as one of Auntie's 'Nieces'; this Vilar Young Artist and Cardiff Singer of the World 2003 Lieder winner is surely to become one of the world's leading singers.
The chorus of the Royal Opera House has never sounded better than in this performance. It was their last big-chorus work with their outgoing director, Terry Edwards, who got a well-deserved ovation at the end. The complex vocal and acting demands on the chorus in this production were extraordinarily well surmounted.
Antonio Pappano led just as impressive an account of this score as the wonderful Lady Macbeth earlier in the season. He particularly accentuated both the impressionistic and jazz influences in the music, and easily justified his appointment as music director of the company.