A very welcome and triumphant revival of Peter Grimes begins Opera North’s Festival of Britten season, soon to be followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice. The work has often been described as Britten’s greatest, the paeans of praise beginning soon after its first performance just after the Second World War, often involving the word “enigma”. This production confirms yet again that it is the most significant British opera of the last century. The character of Peter Grimes is always fascinating, inexhaustibly debatable, because he is not only a modern anti-hero like Berg’s Wozzeck, but one with links to ancient times, when dramatists found that shades of grey were more interesting than straight black and white, and when audiences were drawn to empathise with perpetrators as well as victims who became shunned by the masses. This opera would probably work in a traditional Greek theatre as well as on the beach at Aldeburgh, without the icy winds. It is, though, extraordinary that a surly, possibly psychopathic man who treats both women and children so appallingly should enter the empathy stakes at all.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes © Bill Cooper
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes
© Bill Cooper

It might be because of the townspeople’s reaction to him. They cause us to recoil from most of them, more than from the protagonist. The Opera North Chorus excels itself here with its fluid ensemble work, making the hypocritical, bigoted citizens of the Borough into a shoal which can move swiftly from drunken merrymaking to a murderous hue-and-cry: when Grimes is hunted in Act III it is truly frightening as a mob reminiscent of the one in the early Frankenstein film, a few burning torches briefly appearing in the background, or perhaps the references are to demonstrations like those which followed the News of the World’s campaign for public access to the Sex Offenders Register, but Grimes is certainly not a paedophile in director Phyllida Lloyd’s opinion – he suffers from bipolar disorder. An effigy of the hunted man has its sacking head torn off, an axe and a chainsaw are waved and a noose is brandished. This chorus is constantly and briskly building and rebuilding the sparse set, working with a stock of black palettes and a huge all-encompassing, community-defining net, and proves itself to be as handy with vicious weapons as with words, movements and music.

Or it could be because of Grimes’ aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” in Act I, delivered by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts a little like a church chorister in a trance, sustaining that amazing E with devastating effect. Grimes is no mystic in the normal sense, but there is no over-stressing the brutish side, and we glimpse a strong possibility when he smiles with Ellen Orford that he could settle down without beating her up. In Act II, he sobs along with Ellen, the woman who offers hope, in a scene which invokes a flood of compassion. Lloyd-Roberts hits home perfectly when he is incisive, or harsh, or radiantly lyrical: his interpretation is definitive, and his concluding lines, just before he sails to his watery grave, electrify.

Giselle Allen’s Ellen is utterly plausible, and her “Embroidery” aria as she holds the dead apprentice’s anchor-emblazoned jersey is excellent, every note conveying the tragedy. All of the named townspeople are strong, standing out as distinct individuals from the shoal. Robert Hayward’s Captain Balstrode is a patriarchal figure full of warmth, Mark Le Brocq a strikingly strident Bob Boles, Rebecca de Pont Davies a fine Mrs Sedley and Dean Robinson a suitably domineering Swallow. Jennifer France and Aoife O’Sullivan, making auspicious Opera North debuts, are superb Nieces, agile in body as well as voice as they flirt and fight, like bingers in central Leeds on a Saturday night. The costuming is “eclectic”, generally late 20th-century, but not really fixed in an era, which is right for a work with timeless implications and which contains mentions of laudanum-taking and workhouses.

Jac van Steen conducts with panache, but it is not just the music which provides the heart-stopping moments but the times when the orchestra does not do anything, for example the silences in Act III in between the cries of “Peter Grimes!” or the very end, when the chorus is swaying with the great net, which seems to make softly lisping wave music of its own.

The magnificent Richard Angas was to have played the part of the magistrate Swallow – as he had in all the previous performances since 2006 – but he died suddenly and shockingly last month during rehearsals. All performances have been dedicated to him.

*****