The Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Grimes captures astutely the timeless qualities of Britten’s greatest opera, with a modern, enigmatic anti-hero with whom the audience is invited to sympathise, and a libretto based on part of an early 19th-century collection of sociologically-inclined poems by George Crabbe. It is full of satisfyingly startling contrasts: warm empathy and stark hostility; both compassion for and fear of the man on society’s fringe; gentleness and brutality. 

Few in the audience would ever have much desire to sympathise with the hypocritical bigots of the Borough, who are far from gentle – particularly so in this production, where they parade like black, scavenging birds and perch in the openings of the set. This is a proscenium-filling, darkly oppressive slab made of tarred and weathered planks, as used in English fisherman's huts, which has a function similar to that of a cathedral window full of panels for different characters in the story. Doors and windows swing open at all levels, giving the impression that no scandal can pass unscrutinized.

Anthony Dean Griffey is magnificent throughout as the outcast fisherman. He really looks the part at first sight: an apparently uncouth man with a bewildered  expression who could well be as “callous, brutal and coarse” as he is described in Act I, but who becomes completely gripping when he gives a glimpse of the woolly dreaminess in his head with “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves”. This is more haunting than ever because of the sweetness and purity of lyrical tenor Mr Griffey’s sustained E, and it somehow makes his subsequent lashings out against the boy and Ellen Orford all the more shocking and painful to observe. His doomed apprentice (Lorgan William Erickson) climbs down to death at the bottom of the cliff through a trapdoor, from which light is shone upwards into Grimes’ face, and this has a demonizing effect, foreshadowing the point where Ellen Orford begins wondering whether the man she wants to save could possibly be a bad lot after all.

Patricia Racette is a powerful Ellen, calling on deep emotional reserves with her acting and her voice, especially in Act II when she sings of “the heart’s despair” and when she stands on a box in front of the crowd with “We planned this time to care for the boy”, bringing to mind a modern, caring primary school teacher transported into the small-town England of two centuries ago. When she sings so precisely and expressively, holding the boy’s jumper with her embroidered anchor on it, she brings tears to the eyes. Anthony Michaels-Moore is a convincing, down-to-earth Balstrode, and Jill Grove a subtle, thoughtful Auntie, while her “nieces” (Erin Morley and Leah Partridge) in the pub are a little too demure – bland even. Felicity Palmer is wonderful as Mrs Sedley, the ultimate crabby old gossip, but the chorus, a leading character in itself, is the biggest scene-stealer, often singing in unison like a sinister congregation. In spite of the fact that it is obliged to be static in line-ups or huddles because of the massive set, its diction is excellent and can be very frightening, bringing shivers to the spine with climactic exclamations of “Peter Grimes! … Grimes!”

The cinematographic qualities of Britten’s music are brought out with great skill by the orchestra under veteran Scottish conductor Ronald Runnicles: the storm music is awe-inspiring and the interludes (especially “Moonlight”) are simply heart-rending. In final scene, when Grimes is far out in his boat, freeing himself from “the flashing turmoil” and the cyclorama is filled with pale colours, the chorus sings quietly and movingly, creating an atmosphere of intense melancholy.