One man, who will not fit in with the local community, yet yearns for their acceptance and respect — that is the enigma of Peter Grimes. The story is taken from The Borough, a series of fictional verse letters created by the poet George Crabbe in the early 19th century. During the Second World War the young Benjamin Britten used it as the source for an opera first performed in 1945. He went on to write other fine works for the stage, but this is still his most celebrated and widely performed opera, dealing with the plight of the poetically sensitive outcast who just cannot accept — or be accepted by — the people he lives among.
Indeed David Alden’s 2009 ENO production, of which this is the second revival, shows Grimes as one of the few sane people in the town. In Act III the choreographed actions of the townspeople make them look like a mad Greek chorus celebrating some Dionysian rite, and when they sing “Peter Grimes!” at the tops of their voices it sounds as if they are calling out to a native chthonic deity.
The local pub run by “Auntie” doubles as a whore-house, in which her “nieces” look like mentally disabled girls dressed in identical school uniforms, playing with their dolls. They even hit them when Grimes hits Ellen and forces his new apprentice into joining him for yet more fishing on Sunday. Auntie herself is played by Christine Rice as a strangely transgendered woman in a long coat. It is ironic that Mrs Sedley, who considers herself a pillar of the community, is a drug addict, who persists in demanding laudanum (opium) from the apothecary. They all seem a bunch of misfits, yet Grimes himself is apparently normal, and in Act I when Balstrode suggests he get away and try sailing a wider sea, he responds: I am native, rooted here.
The music shows clearly that Grimes is neither hero nor villain. Like everyone else he lives in a place controlled by the sea, their lives forged and circumscribed by powerful forces, just as Britten’s was by the Second World War. A pacifist, he had left Britain for America a few months before war broke out in 1939. This may have made Britten feel an outcast, like Grimes. But his lack of full acceptance by society at the time was also due to the fact that his partner was a man, the tenor Peter Pears, who was the first to create the title role in this opera.
Here at the ENO that role was sensitively performed by Gwyn Hughes Jones. A beautifully voiced Elizabeth Llewellyn sang the part of a calm and loving Ellen Orford, the woman Grimes wants to marry, but only after he has accumulated enough money to be safe from the sneering of the locals. Of course there is never enough money to protect oneself from the whole world, and this fisherman/poet who talks of “The Great Bear and the Pleiades … drawing up the clouds of human grief” will never be safe from society’s restrictions and condemnations. Appropriate, then, that in the end Captain Balstrode advises him to take his boat out to sea and sink her. Such is the sad and silent end of Britten’s finest opera.
With a strong supporting cast of Simon Bailey’s reassuring presence as Balstrode, John Findon as an Bob Boles the Methodist, and Anne-Marie Owens as Mrs Sedley, this led to a terrific performance. This excellent cast included Clive Bayley as Swallow the lawyer, Alex Otterburn as Ned Keene the apothecary and David Soar as Hobson the carrier. In the non-singing role of the ill-fated apprentice, Rudy Williams looked just as one might expect of an underfed and traumatised boy from the workhouse.
Altogether this was a superb musical performance, under the excellent baton of Martyn Brabbins. This Grimes makes, more eloquently than words can express, the overwhelming case for generous public and private support for the English National Opera.
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