One of the undoubtedly great productions during Edward Gardner’s tenure as Music Director of English National Opera was David Alden’s Peter Grimes. Gardner conducted the premiere in 2009 and the 2014 revival, and on both occasions the title role was taken by Stuart Skelton. Following his time at ENO, he became Principal Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and so things seem almost to have come full circle with that orchestra now performing the opera under his baton at the Royal Festival Hall, with Skelton once again playing the doomed fisherman.
In this extremely successful semi-staging from Vera Rostin Wexelsen the cast were not fully costumed, but the principals did more than wear clothes that simply alluded to their characters. In the case of Grimes, he only has to wear a plain jumper and jeans and he is practically there, and so with a similar approach and the addition of a few caps across the whole cast most looked pretty well clad. In Act II the Boy was actually kitted out in an oilskin and sou’wester as the libretto demands, while a few props such as ropes and barrels also graced the stage.
The large chorus comprised the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Opera Chorus and Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm. These singers, who were also nearly in full costume, occupied the choir stalls on three sides of the RFH’s stage, and by looking down on Peter throughout it really felt as the whole community was constantly watching him as if he were stuck in an arena with no means of escape.
Many productions, and indeed semi-stagings, place the principals among the chorus at the start so that when Swallow mentions each during the opening inquest they rise or step out from the community, while still very much feeling a part of it. This presentation instead placed all of the soloists on the stage in front of the orchestra, which did help us to engage with the individual stance of each character, rather than simply gaining a general impression of the repressive community. At the same time, seeing these figures in front of the larger forces of the orchestra made them feel even more small and petty, further emphasising the small-minded mentality of the community. In this way, dramatically as well as vocally, the end of Act II’s first scene when Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces sing was very effective as they all gazed out at us, while Act III’s proclamations of ‘Peter Grimes’, from soloists and chorus alike, felt as powerful as ever.
Stuart Skelton was magnificent in the title role, with his voice being as expansive and magisterial as ever, but also feeling as if it was cracking when the character was at his most vulnerable. One could see how dramatically he was drawing on his experiences in a range of productions to create a performance that was utterly compelling, with the only moment that felt less accomplished being the death of the Boy (Samuel Winter). It was fine to have the rope running horizontally out of a door rather than vertically down a cliff face. However, the manner in which he became distracted upon hearing the advancing men and let go of the rope felt more worthy of Frank Spencer than Peter Grimes, and in fully staged productions there would have been greater rehearsal time to ensure that the action felt believable.
There were, however, some masterstrokes in the staging, such as Peter singing ‘And God have mercy upon me!’ with his apprentice slung over his shoulder so that the Boy appeared as a Christ-like sacrificial lamb. In Skelton’s portrayal, it was very easy to engage with Peter’s various senses of aspiration, defiance and shattered dreams. In the final scene, he looked immensely vulnerable sat barefoot on the edge of the Royal Festival Hall’s stage, and his reaction to Balstrode’s suggestion to sink his boat was heartbreaking. His journey out from the land took him through the auditorium so that many audience members could feel his presence as he passed by, even as he became lost in the sea of people.
There were some excellent performances from the remainder of the cast including Erin Wall’s Ellen Orford, Roderick Williams’ Captain Balstrode, Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Mrs Sedley, Clive Bayley’s Swallow and James Gilchrist’s Reverend Horace Adams. The other star of the evening was the orchestra itself. Under Gardner’s baton, it delivered exceptionally sensitive, focused and precise playing in which a plethora of details came through. This did not, however, prevent the music from lacking charge when required, and the Act I scene with everyone huddled in The Boar was especially well-rendered as each time the storm music kicked in one felt the further developments in both the weather and the overall scenario.