British composer Benjamin Britten was living in California in 1941 when he stumbled across George Crabbe's The Borough (1810). The collection included the tale of Peter Grimes, a fisherman in a small Suffolk coastal town who sadistically abuses his young apprentices before eventually going mad. The story resonated with the Suffolk-born Britten, who became set on turning it into an opera. While Britten was yearning for home, his relationship with England was not uncomplicated, given his outsider status as a conscientious objector and his homosexuality. By the time his opera premiered in London in 1945, Britten, his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (the first Peter Grimes), and librettist Montagu Slater had shaped Peter Grimes into a nuanced tale of a morally questionable man shunned by a closed-minded, vindictive society. Britten's exceptional orchestral abilities added a layer of character complexity and naturalistic expression to Grimes, rekindling a long-lost English opera tradition and catapulting the work into the operatic canon. In both plot and music, Peter Grimes is a gripping, complex piece – which meant Oper Köln's emotionally distant, and at times overly exaggerated, production did not do justice to the work.

Ivana Rusko (Ellen Orford) and Marco Jentzsch (Peter Grimes)
© Bernd Uhlig

While Köln's Peter Grimes contained some highly effective moments, director Frederic Wake-Walker's production concept flattened the opera's complexities with an overarching religious theme. Wake-Walker used the Act 2 church setting to frame the entire opera. In the programme, he said he wanted "to show how any belief system can quickly run the risk of taking on extreme and dangerous traits." While it's an interesting theme to explore in and of itself, it takes Peter Grimes a step away from the provincial – and dangerous – moral pettiness inherent in societies that transcends prescribed beliefs. It made the opera less resonant by skewing its focus towards society’s moral hypocrisy and away from the contradictory personality of the title figure, ultimately limiting audience empathy for Grimes.

The Oper Köln Chorus
© Bernd Uhlig

The restrictive religious blanket muted the open-ended question that Britten and Slater so wonderfully set up: Is Grimes a victim as well as unquestionably a victimiser? Wake-Walker's heavy-handed exaggeration (the pub as a brothel) and gratuitous farce (cross-dressing, dildos and urinating clowns) broke dramatic continuity, while the reappearing stuffed apprentice doll overstated how Grimes’ past haunted him, giving the production an unneeded horror-film feel.

Nonetheless, some exquisite moments occurred when a lighter directorial touch allowed subtlety and naturalness to shine. The torch-carrying mob of men ready to hunt down Grimes sent a chill down my spine, and the women's quartet (beautifully blended voices of Malgorzata Walewska's Auntie, Monica Dewey and Kathrin Zukowski's nieces, and Ivana Rusko's Ellen Orford) made me hold my breath.

Robert Bork (Balstrode), Marco Jentzsch (Peter Grimes) and Ivana Rusko (Ellen Orford)
© Bernd Uhlig

Marco Jentzsch brought a focused, sandpapery tenor to the agitated lines of Grimes, but struggled to stay buoyant and tonally present in crucial lyrical sections showing the character's other side, such as "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" and the bittersweet dreams at the end of Act 2. Early on, Jentzsch’s balled fists and impetuous movements suggested an intriguing boyish nature, but this sadly turned to wide-eyed mechanical gestures that glossed over Grimes' contradictory persona. Rusko made an emotionally compelling Ellen, however, while consistently spinning flawless rich ribbons of tone.

The all-around strong solo cast brought out each town character's unique traits, with standouts Robert Bork as a robust Balstrode and Rebecca de Pont Davies as a comically spot-on Mrs Sedley. Oper Köln's chorus also shone in this magnificent choral vehicle with sharp rhythmic diction and wonderful dynamic shading. Their Act 3 call for Grimes to be punished, delivered as a wall from the front of the stage, was menacing. Wake-Walker smartly staged them as a bloc throughout while using their white-gloved hands as visual accents (cleverly and understatedly illustrating the quasi town motto, "We keep our hands to ourselves").

Gürzenich-Orchester and Nicholas Collon, Marco Jentzsch (Peter Grimes) and Robert Bork (Balstrode)
© Bernd Uhlig

The orchestra is its own character in Peter Grimes, and conductor Nicholas Collon and the Gürzenich Orchestra painted distinct pictures of the sea, despite the far from ideal conditions of the cavernous hall, which occasionally muddied layers. Collon was highly attentive to all – no easy task given that he conducted from far left and had to continually pivot towards the stage. Yet the steady coordination of sections and the fact that the orchestra never overwhelmed the singers testified to his skilled handling of the ensemble in the space.

The final scene had powerful conceptual unity and visual appeal. Grimes stepped into a watery death onstage as a masked chorus looked on, all under Andreas Grüter's atmospheric lighting and surrounded by Anna Jones' muted pebble-and-sea-toned costumes and washed-out set. I wish that moment had guided the whole show, but the strong ending could not redeem a production whose core concepts undermined the very compelling story it should have served.