Covent Garden is host to Britten’s fishy tale.
Mark Elder had been garnering ecstatic reviews for his conducting of this landmark production of one of Benjamin Britten’s greatest works, so it was especially sad to hear that he had tested positive for Covid and would be unable to conduct the forthcoming performances. However, the Royal Opera House Head of Music, Richard Hetherington, who had worked closely with Elder and the orchestra throughout the rehearsal period, was able to take over, and it is no exaggeration to say that he had a remarkable success.
Given a warm, sympathetic welcome, he lost no time in asserting his firm control over both Britten’s score and the orchestra, which has seldom sounded better. The lyrical passages suggesting the sparkle of the sea or the tenderness of possible salvation for the protagonist were delicately and movingly presented, whilst the storm music was as impassioned as the ‘mob’ scenes were almost primal in their savagery. Small wonder that conductor and orchestra received the evening’s biggest ovation.
To partner this excellence, we had a cast with barely a weak link, dominated by Allan Clayton’s Grimes, “A lost, lone man, so harassed and undone” (George Crabbe, The Borough) rather than the ‘not quite noble’ savage often seen in the role. Less self-referential than Jon Vickers, not quite so sympathetic as Stuart Skelton, Clayton’s influence is surely the great Philip Langridge, although he makes the role his own with his passionate singing and characteristic no holds barred acting.
He is ably supported by Bryn Terfel’s nobly sung, convincingly portrayed Balstrode, and Maria Bengtsson’s warmly sympathetic Ellen, her Wagnerian timbre suitably scaled down as required. John Tomlinson was in fine form as the hypocritical Swallow, and Jacques Imbrailo, unrecognizable as the same person who sang Billy Budd, was a seedy, spivvy Ned. John Graham-Hall gave one of his stage-stealing performances as Bob Boles, and James Gilchrist was ideally twittery as The Rev. Horace Adams.
“…he lost no time in asserting his firm control over both Britten’s score and the orchestra, which has seldom sounded better”
Stephen Richardson’s Hobson was a splendidly brutal characterization, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers an unusually sardonic Auntie. Her nieces were portrayed as Vicky Pollards with style, and very well sung by Jennifer France and Alexandra Lowe. Mrs Sedley was amply characterized by Rose Aldridge, making the most of an often ungrateful part. The Chorus, as ever meticulously trained by William Spaulding, covered themselves in glory in every scene, pinning back our ears whether being skanky yobs or “squalid sea-dames” (Crabbe). Young Cruz Fitz was a vulnerable yet feisty ‘boy.’
Deborah Warner’s production is full of striking visual images, most notably that of the aerialist Jamie Higgins, floating above Grimes’ head as he recalls the fate of his first apprentice. Peter Mumford’s lighting is brilliantly designed in the opening scene where Grimes’ nightmare recollections of his trial are re-enacted, and Michael Levine’s set designs evoke a seaside world of squalor and paucity of ambition, a far cry from the Aldeburgh of Britten but strongly linked to the misery portrayed by Crabbe.
The choreography (Kim Brandstrup) is expertly done, especially in the ‘mob’ scenes, those clubs, flags and flailing arms sinister and troubling in equal measure. It’s all very neatly done, the modern world damningly portrayed and the outsider figure treated as cruelly as he seems to have treated his apprentices, but ultimately we found it somewhat unmoving. The grand soliloquies seemed to be calculated to create a sense of distance, especially ‘Now the Great Bear’ which was sung with Grimes’ back to the audience. Others have been overwhelmed, but what we felt at the end was resignation rather than the anguish experienced after other productions.
• Information on further performances can be found here.