For two Sundays in a row, Edinburgh International Festival opera audiences have been on their feet at the end of astonishing performances in the Usher Hall. This concert performance of Peter Grimes by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, with several cast changes from the Bergen Festival in May, celebrated the renowned partnership of conductor Edward Gardner and tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role. The orchestra played as if blown across the North Sea from Norway by a huge monster of a storm, bringing it all in with them, awash with stinging musical sea spray, full of excitement, sparkling sunlight one moment, brooding and dangerous the next. The Interludes were a highlight, with a poignant and passionate Passacaglia from solo viola, so powerful on the concert stage.

Curtain call of <i>Peter Grimes</i> © Beth Chalmers
Curtain call of Peter Grimes
© Beth Chalmers

The people of Crabbe’s Borough are arguably the main character in the opera, nursing their growing dislike of the fisherman until it boils over into a full blown man hunt. The large force of singers of Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, augmented by the Edward Grieg Kor, the Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm and students from the Royal Northern College of Music, took their places in the organ gallery, casually dressed in jeans, skirts and shirts, the muted greens, blues and greys suddenly creating a living visual seascape. Chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede honed their singing (from memory) into the truly spectacular, the unruly clamour of the court-room, the boisterous stormbound drinkers in The Boar, the pious churchgoers and the livid mob pinning us into our seats with those huge Grimes shouts: electrifying diction, utterly terrifying, as a good Grimes should be. 

At key points, Britten’s opera relies on the balance between what is happening onstage and off, particularly in the pivotal church scene and the choruses echoing round Grimes in the final act. A concert performance compromises, but there were the compensations of the wonderful acoustic of the Usher Hall and simply watching the orchestra interpret Britten’s precise score was a whole drama in itself, the storm in particular visually sweeping backwards and forwards across the strings. For the church, the chorus turned their back on us, facing the organ console – and what a treat to have a proper organ with a soft 32ft rumble heightening the drama at this critical turning point.

The Borough’s long list of entertaining characters was perfectly drawn, Andrew Greenan’s Swallow, gruff in the courtroom, was horribly smarmy around Scandinavians Hanna Husáhr and Vibeke Kristensen’s brightly sung wayward Nieces. Susan Bickley’s no nonsense Auntie, Barnaby Rea’s truculent Hobson and James Gilchrist’s well-meaning but hopeless Rector were all strongly sung in support, Catherine Wyn-Rogers a particularly robust Mrs Sedley, shocked by the antics in the Boar, yet prying and stirring up the murderous  gossip. Marcus Farnsworth’s smarmy fixer Ned Keene and Robert Murray’s bible thumping Parson completed the line-up.

Captain Balstode, sharing his understanding of the ways of the sea with Grimes is the decent man wanting to see fair play, helping him with his boat, urging him to get on and marry Ellen. Christopher Purves gave a huge performance, his baritone full of warmth and humanity, literally supporting Stuart Skelton’s broken Grimes in the first act, before eventually being the man to deliver the final spoken order to the hopelessly lost fisherman.

Erin Wall’s Ellen Orford was bright and powerful, almost embracing Grimes in the Act 1, standing up to the drinkers in the Boar before fetching John, the new apprentice. Her interrogation of John outside church, the discovery of the fresh bruise and her confrontation and turning point with Grimes were electrifying. As the service ended and the people emerged from church with a “fresh beginning for fresh sins”, her support for Grimes vanished. The boy in his red Norwegian jersey cowered behind Gardner’s podium. When the jersey reappeared, washed up from the sea, her Embroidery aria was emotionally heartfelt.

Stuart Skelton’s Grimes is rightly famed, playing him as intensely vulnerable, fragile and angry, what we would simply call mentally ill nowadays. He dreams illusions of setting up shop with Ellen once he has made his fortune from fishing, and although the first apprentice’s death was ‘accidental’, it completely haunts this Grimes. Skelton lumbers about bowed and holding his head and sees the first boy’s ghost in his hut. We can’t be too sympathetic though, as he hurls the second boy roughly over his shoulder and slings him his sea boots oilskin and sou’ wester – “We’re going to sea”. Vocally strong and powerful in mid and lower range, there were a few niggles on the night with his dreamy gossamer pianissimo upper entries. It was however, a deeply touching performance ending with him walking out slowly barefoot through the auditorium as dawn broke once more, Gardner steering his players carefully to the last soft thuds, then holding the silence.