Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes is the quintessential British opera. Adapted from George Crabbe's narrative poem from the collection The Borough, the protagonist's struggle against the prejudices of the community is infused with the severe atmosphere of the Suffolk coast. Yet at Bologna's Teatro Comunale, where the work was being performed for the first time, this music was commandingly delivered by the resident orchestra which is better known for its world class interpretations of Rossini. The Comunale had teamed up with Bologna's basketball team Virtus to offer a 50%-off ticket deal aimed at drawing new audiences. While the subject matter of this opera might not have seemed the most immediately accessible, here was playing to capture the imaginations of opera newbies.

Ian Storey (Peter Grimes) © Rocco Casaluci
Ian Storey (Peter Grimes)
© Rocco Casaluci

The explosive Slovak Juraj Valčuha, formerly principal conductor of Turin's RAI National Symphony Orchestra and now music director the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, electrified his forces with jabs and sweeping gestures, and chalked a detailed panorama rich in timbral variety that realised the score's full brooding potential. When the curtain came down for the orchestral set pieces we could abandon ourselves entirely to Britten's sonic wash. The seaspray-speckled dawn of the first Sea Interlude was a delicious moment, here interspersed with flashes of Sibelius-like expanses and yawning foghorns evocative of darkly churning waters, while the Passacaglia built from faintly pattering double basses to a raging howl of despair.

Cesare Lievi's niftily-put-together flat-pack production sets the action in what looks like an unspecified but clearly disconnected Massachusetts fishing community. Assorted timber-frame constructions comprise a central church flanked by a modern-day pharmacy for Ned Keene's apothecary and a seedy Boar Inn whose curtained window skirted with red lights do not leave its status as a brothel in question. We enter the inn during the storm and find ourselves in the kind of grimy club where feet stick to floors. Lievi has provided resourceful touches - a plastic sheet, rippingly lit, drops from the rigging to represent a wall of rain - and there are some deft interpretive details, such as when the boy apprentice (Carlo Alberto Brunelli) virtuously lines up littered bottles to the sound of the congregation's psalmody, before violently knocking them down when the music turns dark offering a glimpse of his inner turmoil. This is a production that places the inhabitants of The Borough at is heart. The chorus, on ear-splitting form, is chillingly immobile for the most part, save for when it rushes forward and fixes a horrifying stare on the audience.

© Rocco Casaluci
© Rocco Casaluci

Ian Storey gave a moving account of Grimes. Highly respected in Europe particularly for his performances of Wagner, the tenor's mighty voice impressed especially in the heftier musical passages, yet this was also a nuanced reading invested with subtlety, such as a daringly quiet sotto voce at the start of "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" that made your hair stand on end. Storey's is a softer-grained Grimes than you often get, and his portrayal of the protagonist's mental breakdown might have been grittier. But, while there are no discernible hints of paedophilia in this production, there is enough ambiguity to make the character engage. When Grimes takes his apprentice out of the back of his trailer abode we are left guessing whether or not he fell or was pushed to his death.

The other parts have been intelligently cast. Mark S. Doss was a robust Balstrode armed with a strapping voice and sparkling diction, and a bearded Paolo Antognetti, sporting shades and a wide brim hat, made for a shadowy Bob Boles. The interest of any casting agents that might have been present will have been piqued by Charlotte-Anne Shipley, the choral scholar come graduate of the Rome Opera Studio, whose even, radiant tone beamed gorgeously in Ellen's aria "Embroidery in childhood".

Ian Storey (Peter Grimes) © Rocco Casaluci
Ian Storey (Peter Grimes)
© Rocco Casaluci

Italian Britten specialist Gabriella Sborgi has the right theatricality to pull off this especially ribald reading of Auntie, and she delivered her text so cleanly you'd assume she were a UK import. Chaira Notarnicola and Sandra Pastrana were a zany pair of Nieces. The nicely resonant Irish bass John Molloy was a standout Swallow. Not for the first time this season, the Comunale has scored a slam dunk.

****1