Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Peter Grimes: Opera North @ Sadler’s Wells, London

26 & 28 February 2008

The abuse of the most vulnerable members of our society is sadly never far from our social consciousness these days. With the prosecution and jailing of a number of killers and the emerging details of possibly wide-scale atrocities against children in a small island community in just the last few days, Opera North’s current revival of its highly-successful Peter Grimes resonates horribly.

Phyllida Lloyd‘s interpretation of the central character, as played by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, is fascinating. He could be one of those outsiders gracing the tabloids who, for whatever unfathomable reason, take the lives of innocents, as he stomps and glowers on the fringes of society. In Lloyd-Roberts performance, he also has a tremendous vulnerability, pinpointing an ambiguity of sympathy that lies at the heart of the work. There is a sad sad quality too about Giselle Allen‘s Ellen Orford and this meeting of oddballs and the relationship between the two has never been so affecting.

One of the many illuminating things about Lloyd’s production is the way the whole community seems to be made up of misfits, lacking in any self-awareness and ready to ostracise those who choose not to be part of the pack. The splendid Alan Oke is a lank-haired anorak as Bob Boles, a memorable performance, as is Roderick Williams‘ lyrical Ned Keene, a wonderfully slimy spiv. Each carefully delineated character in the community is an individual creation and together they build up into a frightening whole. The vigilantism of the mob is shudderingly recognisable and Balstrode’s final solution to the problem of the outsider in their midst is horrifying, just as an officially-sanctioned resurrection of the death-penalty would be.

Lloyd’s staging is flexible in its minimalism but some elements have a clunkiness about them. While the dragging around of pallets and crates to represent this location or that will look innovative to some, to others it is just reminiscent of a 70s experimental theatre production. It sort of works but smacks of low-budgets and the limitations imposed by touring rather than fully integrated production decisions. Some highly memorable images the line-up of citizens facing upstage, ostensibly at prayer, as Grimes’ brutality comes to light, the fisherman sobbing over the dead boy at the commencement of Act 3, the burning in effigy of the hated outsider make up for this and contribute to a strikingly different visual in a reading that is not poetic but rooted in current reality.

Musically it’s not the most refined Peter Grimes you’ll ever hear, although in the pit (under Music Director Richard Farnes), the musical ideas are as compelling as the dramatic ones onstage. In the great Passacaglia, the repetition of Grimes’ “God have mercy upon me” is unremitting in its insistence and, throughout, Britten’s themes are as clearly drawn as one can imagine. For the most part, the singing is effective rather than distinguished. Lloyd-Robert’s light tenor struggles at times, particularly in the high reaches of the Pleiades aria, and Christopher Purves‘ Balstrode is less inspired than stolid and reliable. But the great strength of the production is the ensemble, with a myriad of character details and fine work from the chorus, especially in the final act.

Altogether, this is a highly-stimulating evening, which sends you out shaken and stirred. It gives us a Peter Grimes both radical in approach and utterly true to the underlying intentions of the piece, and leaves us wondering why we haven’t seen it this way before.

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