Although at first sight it might seem to be a rather ‘coals to Newcastle’ idea for a Norwegian orchestra to bring Britten’s seminal opera Peter Grimes to London, the capital has been without a staging by our national opera companies for a good few years. Originally created for the 2017 Bergen International Festival, and subsequently seen at that summer’s Edinburgh Festival, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra’s semi-staging of the work by Vera Rostin Wexelsen has been brought back into the repertoire for further performances, in Bergen, Oslo and now London’s Royal Festival Hall, allied with sessions for a new Chandos recording.

Ed Gardner © Mark Allan | Southbank Centre
Ed Gardner
© Mark Allan | Southbank Centre

The orchestra’s chief conductor, Ed Gardner, was also in charge of the opera’s last ENO showing in 2014, and his command of Britten’s dramatic idiom is second to none. His pacing was perfect, his ability to make way for the singers’ words the work of a true operatic master, and in his hands the Sea Interludes took their place as central parts of the drama, rather than as mere scene-setting, most thrillingly in a real “bitch of a gale” in the Act 1 storm (to quote Captain Balstrode). There’s an argument for regarding the chorus as the opera’s chief ‘character’, and the combined forces of four vocal ensembles – Bergen’s Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor and Collegium Musicum, alongside the Opera Chorus of the Royal Northern College of Music (which also provided the work’s ‘bit-part’ step-out cameos) – were stunningly effective, not just in the sheer volume of the stentorian calls of “Peter Grimes!” from a body of singers several times larger than one normally finds on stage, but also in vocal precision and projection of the text.

Erin Wall (Ellen), Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) and Samuel Winter (John) © Mark Allan | Southbank Centre
Erin Wall (Ellen), Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) and Samuel Winter (John)
© Mark Allan | Southbank Centre

The soloists were all veterans of this or previous productions of Peter Grimes, with the inhabitants of the Borough a veritable roll-call of Britten-singing royalty. At its head was the unforgettable figure of Stuart Skelton (another ENO Grimes alumnus), whose assumption of the title role has come to be definitive and a worthy successor to the great Grimeses of the past. True, his voice sometimes let him down at this performance, with a few cracked high notes and rough edges, but in the context of his psychologically intense physical portrayal of a burly fisherman who doesn’t realise his own strength, this all seemed by the by, and there was mitigation in some beautifully floated soft singing, especially at the beginning of his “Great Bear” monologue. Few singing actors portray the flawed, ostracised loner with such sympathy and penetrating depth, for instance in the scene in his hut when we see him recoil as he realises he has pushed his apprentice too hard, or at the very end, when he has to face the fact that drowning is the only way out, the fear in his expression said it all.

Roderick Williams (Balstrode) and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra © Mark Allan | Southbank Centre
Roderick Williams (Balstrode) and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Southbank Centre

Erin Wall offered sympathetic support as Ellen Orford and spun some lyrical lines in her short ariettas, and Roderick Williams’ Balstrode was for ever the calm face of reason. Despite the limitations of the semi-staging (a handful of barrels and some steps were the only ‘set’), all the remaining Borough folk emerged, thanks to effective singing and acting, as real characters: Susan Bickley’s bossy Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ laudanum-addicted Mrs Sedley, Clive Bayley’s pompous Swallow, Robert Murray’s weak-willed Bob Boles, Marcus Farnsworth’s wily Ned Keene, James Gilchrist’s ineffectual rector, Barnaby Rea’s jobsworth Hobson and Hanna Husáhr and Vibeke Kristensen’s pair of saucy ‘nieces’. Credit also to Samuel Winter for his acting as Grimes’ boy apprentice and for his chilling offstage scream as the character falls down the cliff to his death. Proof that, desirable as it might be, you don't need all the accoutrements of a theatre to present gripping drama.

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