Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Peter Grimes review – a thrilling start to English National Opera’s new season

21 September 2023

David Alden’s disturbing vision of Peter Grimes is given a powerful performance by the ENO on top form.

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes at ENO (Photo: Tom Bowles)

David Alden’s staging of Britten’s first major opera was last seen at the Coliseum in 2014. It made a huge impression then, as it had done when new in 2009. Now Alden’s gallery of grotesques is back – paraded before the audience in a staging of the work as far removed from the original as you could imagine. In the American director’s vision there’s no room for twee, English seaside parochialism. Instead we’re presented with a nightmarish vision of a society turned in on itself, searching in vain for an identity. 

Drawing on a visual palette containing more than a nod to European expressionism, together with his collaborators, Paul Steinberg (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes) and Adam Silverman (lighting) they conjure up a world that is bleak, and unremitting. There is little solace to be found in this inward-looking community, so when they find a scapegoat in Peter Grimes who they can blame for their own insecurities, their pent up aggression finally spills over into violence, and the results are shattering.

Alden’s direction of the singers and the chorus is exemplary. He draws vivid, dramatically alert performances from every single member of the cast, each character slightly unhinged, no doubt the result of living in such a tight-knit community. With a lineup of singers that includes Christine Rice’s Otto Dix inspired Auntie, and Anne-Marie Owens’ drug-addled Mrs Sedley, there are no weak links. Rice is luxury casting, filling Britten’s vocal lines with her warm, burnished mezzo, while Owens exudes danger, and is quite terrifying in the final act.

Alex Otterburn turns in a maniacally-driven, fabulously well sung performance as the spiv Ned Keene, while David Soar is a resonant, pitch-perfect Hobson. One can only imagine how unusual the First and Second Nieces upbringing was – depicted by Alden as a pair of disturbed twins – but both are brilliantly voiced and acted by Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd. Clive Bayley is no stranger to the role of Swallow – immaculately sung in oily tones, while John Findon is a Bob Boles of frightening intensity, his steel-like tenor ringing out effortlessly – surely a Grimes in the making. 

Traditionally viewed as the only sympathetic character to the plight of Peter Grimes, in this staging Balstrode is portrayed with more ambiguity – it’s as though Alden is asking us to question whose side is he really on. Simon Bailey caught this conflict to perfection, his firm, disciplined baritone ringing out thrillingly, yet not without the element of grit that the role requires. 

“…Alden’s gallery of grotesques is back…”

Peter Grimes

Gwyn Hughes Jones & Elizabeth Llewellyn (Photo: Tom Bowles)

Elizabeth Llewellyn is inspired casting as Ellen Orford. She possesses a bright, silvery soprano, capable of much light and shade, and her wealth of experience singing Verdi and Puccini is evident in the way she makes Britten’s vocal lines soar with an uncommon fullness and brightness. This was an astonishingly assured role debut, as was Gwyn Hughes Jones in the title role.

Jones is no stranger to Verdi or Puccini either, although recently he’s started adding heavier German roles (Walther and Tristan) to his repertoire. Peter Grimes is one of those roles that lends itself to lighter lyrical voices, like its creator Peter Pears, and heldentenors, such as Jon Vickers, or Stuart Skelton. In many ways Jones is the best of both worlds. He is able to sing lyrically when required, Grimes’ visionary ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ was beautifully voiced, yet has reserves of power for the character’s many outbursts. His final scene was heartbreaking – he’s done nothing finer, and it will be fascinating to see how he grows into the role over the years.

As mentioned earlier, the chorus is the driving force in this opera, and under Chorus Director James Henshaw the augmented ENO Chorus is nothing short of sensational, singing with a frightening intensity in the third act manhunt that chills the blood. Throughout the evening their baleful, threatening presence and full-voiced singing set the pulses racing. Outstanding.

In the pit, Music Director Martyn Brabbins conducts a pitch-perfect performance, attune to every shift in Britten’s musical landscape, and is rewarded with exceptional playing from every section of the ENO Orchestra, most notably in the superbly evocative sea interludes. 

This remarkable performance gave notice of a company at the top of its game, firing on all cylinders. The fact that Arts Council England were prepared to throw all of this away is nothing short of a criminal act of artistic vandalism, that hopefully has been kicked into the long grass. 

If you see anything this autumn, make sure it’s this.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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