Despite the familiarly ostentatious surroundings, ENO’s Peter Grimes is aesthetically different to any opera I have ever seen. On almost every level it has elements of coarseness and complexity that seem somewhat alien to the form, and yet, in this case, enrich it immeasurably.
To begin with the set. Designed by Paul Steinberg, it is all bare, polished wood effect and harsh, extreme angles. Somehow, it manages to combine utilitarian minimalism with impressive spectacle. At one point, a storm is wonderfully depicted with a slanting roof spanning the entire width of the stage, which swings open to admit visitors. This is a show containing a large number of scene changes, usually curtain-down during intervals or interludes, and for the most part they complement each other. Opera always seems to contain a certain tension between all its composite elements – the performance, the singing, the design, the music – and this is particularly evident in this piece. It is an occasional distraction, but far more often the source of great interest and impact.
The performers are equally notable. Strong lead roles, both vocally and visually, are supported by an equally strong (and gigantic) chorus. Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes plays an extremely difficult part with ease and authenticity, and vocally is capable of extreme roughness and power as well as almost unbearable softness. Elza van den Heever, as his somewhat unlucky opposite, Ellen Orford, has wonderful stage presence and movement, and a beautiful voice capable of soaring joy and touching mournfulness. Yet the cast taken as a whole, though well-directed by David Alden, do seem somewhat inconsistent. Some characters are understated and realistic, others cartoonish, such as those of Auntie’s nieces played by Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan. Although they come into their own during a wonderfully surreal scene in the latter half, their committed but bizarre performance is for the most part simply jarring. One character who strikes the balance well between eccentricity and reality is Mrs Sedley, played by Felicity Palmer. Her performance is a wonderful, charming combination of frail and cantankerous, and a source of much-needed humour.
As for the music, it seems a world away from the beautiful, cohesive and satisfying music of many classical continental composers, its complexity acting as a spur for the intricacy evident in the rest of the production. It is multi-layered and mercurial, often congruent with the bleakness of the action, but often also being the only suggestion of lightness and hope in an exceedingly dark three hours. Peter Grimes is in many ways a truly tragic figure, with no hope of redemption, and this is at times challenging to watch. Characters – particularly Grimes – are almost wholly unlikeable, and often act irrationally in a way that is either refreshing or infuriating. Whichever way you look at it, this production is uncompromising, powerful and engaging.
Peter Grimes is playing at the London Coliseum until 27 February. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.
Image by Robert Workman.