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Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes tells the story of a misunderstood fisherman who just doesn’t seem to be able to keep hold of a decent apprentice.  The boys keep dying on him.  But Grimes is not really about fishermen or child abuse – it’s a story about the persecuted outsider, and music for the sea.

I saw the last show of the opera’s run, and so unfortunately missed out on seeing Stuart Skelton’s reportedly brilliant take on the title roll.  I’ve been lucky enough to spot Skelton in real life (backstage at a rehearsal of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire in Sydney) and he is a very amiable man.  It’s great to see an Australian performer achieving such success overseas.  I doubt John Daszak was as strong as Skelton in the role – but I didn’t find that this interfered much with my enjoyment of the piece.  The role after all was originally written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears, who didn’t have great Wagnerian range like Skelton. The Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’, apparently written on Pears’ only good note (E-natural a third above middle C) – was very beautifully performed by Daszak.

I have slight reservations about the ENO production.  Captain Balstrode (sung by the fantastic Gerald Finley of Doctor Atomic) was inexplicitly missing an arm.  Auntie (Rebecca de Pont Davies) cross-dresses in a vaudevillian tux.  Her two ‘nieces’ are dressed as identical school girls, who alternately pound the heads of their dolls into the ground and stroke each other’s thighs.  These drag and sideshow elements are intended to draw attention to the dance hall-esque parts of the score and evoke Kurt Weill.

This works to some extent, but it also interferes somewhat with the subtle way that more restrained productions of Grimes can make a very ordinary seaside village seethe with menace.  By making all the townspeople a little odd, the idea that  regular people are just as likely to be evil as those who stand out (like Grimes) is lost.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better minimal staging of an opera.  The main set pieces where three large benches, used to best effect piled up on each other to suggest Grimes’ cliff top hut.  The boy’s accidental death was brilliantly staged. A very strong production overall.


Peter Grimes
By Benjamin Britten

30/05/09
ENO at the London Coliseum

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