Bringing Peter Grimes to Grange Park a year after the Britten centenary is an enormous challenge. With the salty tang of Aldeburgh’s magnificent ‘Grimes on the Beach’ still fresh in the memory, the task of recreating the Suffolk coast in Hampshire’s idyllic countryside might have seemed a step too far. With the cast already assembling for the inquest into the death of Grimes’ apprentice as the audience filed into their seats, the sound of mewing seagulls was relayed around the orangery’s auditorium. A desparate step to evoke atmosphere? We needn’t have worried. When the set for Moot Hall opened out at the end of the Prologue, a definite sense of place was established.

Carl Tanner (Peter Grimes) © Robert Workman
Carl Tanner (Peter Grimes)
© Robert Workman

Francis O’Connor’s jigsaw-like set sees steps and buildings effortlessly glide into place. It opens out to reveal a giant video screen with the sea in its various moods and guises beneath moody skyscapes. Grimes’ hut is brilliantly constructed, opening out to reveal the upper floor constructed from a boat’s hull. The cramped interior of The Boar Inn added a welcome sense of claustrophobia to the storm scene, in contrast to the open skies of Act II’s Sunday morning. Paul Anderson evocative lighting designs added much, shining a lighthouse beam across the stage and out into the auditorium at one point. The pushing out of Grimes’ boat to sea one last time was unbelievably powerful, lessened only by a fear that too much dry ice may have been employed to enable us to see the final scene.

Director Jeremy Sams delivers a traditional production with a provocative twist. Costumes place us firmly in the 19th century Suffolk of George Crabbe’s poem The Borough. Characters are vivdly drawn so a sense of community – and people knowing everybody else’s business – is palpable. Sams’ boldest interpretation surrounds the ‘Sea Interludes’ which are depicted as a series of flashbacks to Peter’s childhood. We see him bought from the workhouse and violently abused by his new ‘father’, a fisherman. He is bullied by the other children – this Grimes has been an outcast his whole life – but is befriended by Ellen. This gives the adult Grimes’ relationship with Ellen context, but Sams is also suggesting a cycle of abuse, explaining Grimes’ rough treatment of his apprentices.

Georgia Jarman (Ellen Orford) © Robert Workman
Georgia Jarman (Ellen Orford)
© Robert Workman

Carl Tanner fits the mould for Sams’ vision. His Grimes cuts a strong, burly figure, acutely uncomfortable in company. A noticeable American accent only served to enhance his alienation, but made lines such as “I am native, rooted here” a little ironic. Tanner had been suffering from sinusitis and vocal difficulites were apparent, especially in the crooning which opened “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”. However, his tenor built powerfully through the monologue to lead to an enthralling performance. The flashback episodes also brought a sense of ambiguity In Act II: when Grimes muses “Sometimes I see that boy here in this hut…”, is he referring to William Spode (his previous apprentice) or recalling his own youth? Tanner rose to the challenge of the mad scene superbly, making for uncomfortable viewing.

Stephen Gadd (Captain Balstrode) © Robert Workman
Stephen Gadd (Captain Balstrode)
© Robert Workman

Georgia Jarman was outstanding for the sheer beauty of her lyric singing and her moving portrayal of Ellen Orford. I’ve rarely heard the ‘Embroidery’ aria sung so beautifully. Equally believable was Stephen Gadd’s salty sea-dog of a Captain Balstrode; bluff humour, but sympathetic, his full baritone in fine form.

Among the other inhabitants of the Borough, Rebecca de Pont Davies stood out as a waspish Mrs Sedley (hitting the bottle in The Boar), as did Clive Bayley’s randy Swallow. Andrew Rees’ Bob Boles, delivered in ringing tones, whipped up the mob in Act III with relish. Gary Griffiths delivered the humour well as Ned Keene. Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell simpered nicely as the nieces, but I was less convinced by Anne-Marie Owens’ Auntie, possibly too cosy to be running an inn of disrepute and lacking a strong lower register. The Act II quartet of female voices never quite gelled to make it the central vocal highlight of the opera.

Choral contributions were strong throughout the evening. They may lack the numbers of, say, ENO’s Chorus, but their membership was perfectly judged so that – at full tilt – their sound filled the auditorium, overpowering in the cries of “Peter Grimes!” (but in a good way). No surtitles were displayed… nor required.  Stephen Barlow led a vivid account of Britten’s score, alert to its nuances, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra delivering some scintillating playing, not least in the Sea Interludes.

Accommodating such a powerful opera as Peter Grimes in this small space only increases its emotional impact. Add a superbly traditional production, but not without provocative inspiration in its direction, and it rattles the audience. Aldeburgh in the Hampshire countryside? Truly.

****1