If you’re a verismo fan who wants opera to hold up a mirror to real life, look no further than Britten’s Peter Grimes and ENO’s revival of David Alden’s 2009 production. Where the Prologue of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci promised us “a slice of life”, in Grimes, Britten subjects life in a Suffolk fishing village to high definition CCTV, examining the inner nature of each of his many characters with an unflinching eye for detail.

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes © Robert Workman
Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes
© Robert Workman

The action grips you from the start, with the high courtroom drama as the fisherman Grimes is questioned about the death at sea of his apprentice. In the title role, Stuart Skelton gave us an outstanding portrayal of the man’s shifting moods from rough to hunted to headstrong. The tension winds up steadily as it becomes clear that the villagers are just a few steps away from turning into a lynch mob. But the greatest violence of all is that of the sea and sky: Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra unleash a North Sea storm fit to terrify the wits out of anyone.

Peter Grimes is an ensemble piece, with a host of smaller roles. David Alden’s stage direction delineates every character sharply and shows exceptional attention to detail: you sense that every movement and gesture on stage has been carefully thought through and rehearsed to perfection, especially in the crowd scenes. The overall setting may be bleak, but the variety of life would do a Brueghel painting proud: drunken doctor, wide boy apothecary, interfering busybody and many more. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes, set in the mid 20th century, are varied and intelligent within an overall dark mood: I particularly noted the pub landlady Auntie, dressed very much in the persona of the evil MC in Cabaret, and the ghastly school uniforms of her two “nieces”.

Elza van den Heever and Timothy Kirrag © Robert Workman
Elza van den Heever and Timothy Kirrag
© Robert Workman
Peter Grimes is now something of a signature role for Skelton, who sings the violent passages with authority and the lyrical passages with immense beauty (to get a taster, listen to the clip of the Great Bear aria on ENO’s site and marvel at his ability to grow from a pianissimo). Skelton so grips you with his impersonation of the character that it’s possible to forget for a moment that you’re hearing quite such a high level of pure vocal quality at every part of his range, in music that is very demanding technically. Elza van den Heever acts equally believably as Ellen, a role which also requires a series of mood shifts but which gives fewer opportunities to shine vocally. Van den Heever takes those on offer, most notably the sequence in Act II with the young apprentice and the ensuing quartet with Auntie and the nieces, which was sublime.

The surrounding cast is also very strong indeed. Michael Colvin (the bible-bashing Bob Boles) and Leigh Melrose (the apothecary Ned Keene) were the two that stood out most for me, while Iain Paterson (Grimes’ friend Captain Bulstrode) and Felicity Palmer (Mrs Sedley, a sort of evil version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) also gave memorable performances. And the ENO choir were revved up to full throttle, producing an extraordinary sound in the storm and mob scenes; their denunciation of Grimes in the Act III climax knocked me backwards in my seat.

ENO Chorus © Robert Workman
ENO Chorus
© Robert Workman

The defining feature of Peter Grimes, the thing that makes it unique amongst any opera I know, is the variety of the music. Britten simply has more tools in his toolbox than any other composer, and in Grimes, they are deployed in profusion. It enables him to create shifts in mood and pace in subtle and minute detail. In the crisis Act II Scene II, when Grimes is alone with his apprentice, the mood starts calm, moves to an immensely tense climax, is followed by a scherzo-like interlude as the mob of villagers are discomfited by finding no evidence of anything at Grimes’ hut, ending with heart-wrenching elegy. At each stage, Britten has been masterful in gripping you by the ears and leading you through the gamut of emotions.

This production isn’t quite sold out yet. It should be: the singing is excellent, the orchestral performance is out of the top drawer and the staging hardly puts a foot wrong. This is a showpiece for English music, a magnificent production of one of the most dramatically intense and musically virtuosic operas ever written.

*****