Culture and Civilisations

A moment of pure perfection: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

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A moment of pure perfection: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra perform Peter Grimes. Photo by Mark Allan

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten is one of the world’s great operas and this staging from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, at London’s South Bank for one night only, was electrifying. The 150-strong chorus allowed us to savour Grimes as a choral symphony — it was a powerful experience indeed.

For those who don’t know the essentials, Grimes is a fisherman who believes that his single-minded pursuit of success will bring him the respect of the local community and marriage to Ellen Orford. She would marry him anyway, but his brutal focus on the great catch has already resulted in the death of one apprentice, and towards the end leads to the death of the new one that Ellen helps bring into his care. The performance by Stuart Skelton allows us to see clearly the fatal flaw in Grimes’s character: his complete inability to understand others or comprehend why they dislike him.

Yet Grimes also has a poet’s sensitivity to loneliness and the mysteries of the universe, and when he enters the pub in scene 2 of Act I and sings: “the Great Bear and Pleiades… are drawing up the clouds of human grief” he is almost silent, floating his words on the air above the orchestra.

There are glorious contrasts. The Bergen Philharmonic, with its own choir supplemented by three other choirs, including students from the Royal Northern College of Music, produces wonderful shades of sound under the baton of Ed Gardner. I have never heard it better performed, and during the church service in scene 1 of Act II the choir turned away from the audience and sang with sublime clarity in a way impossible for an off-stage chorus in an opera house.

Skelton, arguably the world’s best Grimes at present, heads a magnificent cast that includes Erin Wall as a gently-nuanced Ellen, Susan Bickley as a robust and cheerfully dominating Auntie, with Hanna Husáhr and Vibeke Kristensen as her nieces. Their Act II quartet was beautifully sung, and in Roderick Williams we had a Captain Balstrode whose voice and stage presence helped the illusion of a fully-staged opera.

Other supporting roles were superbly sung with Clive Bayley making a very welcome and unexpected appearance as Swallow the Mayor, Marcus Farnsworth as Ned Keene the apothecary, who persuades Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs Sedley to meet him in the pub if she wants her laudanum that same evening. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Hobson and completing a very fine cast was Robert Murray as the awkward Methodist Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Rector, and Samuel Winter as the Boy apprentice, who disappears as Grimes lets go the rope that lowers him to the beach.

As the end draws nigh, Grimes himself disappears, after Balstrode has told him to take the boat out and sink her. Barefooted, he climbs down from the stage, walks up the aisle among the audience and vanishes through the side door. The assembled company look out across the auditorium to see the boat in the distance, and as the music comes to an end, Ed Gardner holds his baton aloft and we can savour the moment, with nary a peep from the well-behaved audience. Perfection.

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