English classical music is often associated with the countryside, the landscape and its villages, and Britten's opera Peter Grimes is no exception. But this isn't the gentle, pastoral landscape of Brooke or Housman, and no larks are ascending here: it's a harsh, forbidding place inhabited by harsh, forbidding people whose Christianity has much faith and some hope but a distinct shortage of charity. The story is brutal: Grimes is a rough fisherman, a coarse, headstrong man of limited intelligence, who is suspected of sexually abusing his young apprentices and has become an outcast in his community. The suspicions are unfounded, but the truth isn't a great improvement: Grimes is literally working his apprentices to death.

Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes, Orlando Copplestone as his apprentice John © The Royal Opera, Clive Barda 2011
Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes, Orlando Copplestone as his apprentice John
© The Royal Opera, Clive Barda 2011

To tell the story, Britten draws on an immense musical palate. The orchestral interludes which punctuate the action are justly famous in their own right as one of the great musical evocations of a capricious seascape which veers from serenely beautiful to fearsomely violent. But Peter Grimes contains much more than this: there is an astonishing variety of music of great power. There are choral numbers, unaccompanied duets, solo arias of immense beauty, orchestral powerhouses, an extraordinary quartet for female voices - the list goes on. In places in the later acts, Britten has two totally separate scenes in different styles happening at the same time, a compositional trick which seems staggeringly difficult but is pulled off with aplomb. Conductor Andrew Davis conjured a thoroughly assured performance from the large orchestra, who did a great job of projecting the different nuances of the piece.

The prologue and the first act portray an inquest into the death at sea of one of the young apprentices and its aftermath amongst the people of "The Borough". The most potent thing is the characterisation: much of the opera is a chilling portrayal of the behaviour of a crowd which has been given the opportunity to find an outsider on whom blame can be pinned. With the exception of Ellen Orford, the one consistently good and heroic figure, everyone is flawed, and their flaws and hypocrisies are mercilessly exposed under an unsentimental verismo eye.

It's high octane stuff which left me reeling, although strangely, I was less captivated by the action in the second and third acts. I didn't feel the ratcheting up of tension that Britten probably intended as events wound their way through to the tragic conclusion: the first act had done such a complete job of portraying the awfulness of the people concerned that the nature of the tragedy seemed inevitable. On the other hand, some of the vocal writing in the last two acts is quite sublime. In his introduction to the opera, Britten makes clear that he was trying to emulate a skill in vocal setting that had been largely lost to English music after Purcell. It's an ambitious claim for a man of 31, but to my mind, he achieved enough success to justify it.

Willy Decker's production is a triumph of form over function. It's in the "overwhelmingly grey and dark with occasional splashes of colour" category, and is visually stunning: a steeply raked stage, swirling grey backdrops and monumental buildings are all very impressive, as are the bright scarlet slits of light which denote the sinful carousing in the Borough's pub. There was one particularly strong visual effect: as Grimes is about to make his entrance into the pub at the end of Act I: the door opens to reveal a giant shadow of the man on the pub wall, to the horror of the patrons. However, the lighting was very dark for much of the time, and the large cast of male characters were all dressed in similar dark suits, often singing out of a crowd of others. This is the first time I've seen Peter Grimes, and for much of the time, I had no idea which character was singing.

I very much enjoyed listening to Ben Heppner in the title role. His voice may sometimes be a little over-stretched at the top of his register, but his diction was marvellously clear and his depiction of Grimes's coarse, obsessive, tortured character was compelling. I have more mixed feelings about Amanda Roocroft's Ellen. On the one hand, Roocroft has an exceptionally agile voice, and you have to admire anyone who can get through a couple of hours of Britten's very challenging music while maintaining perfect control of dynamics and phrasing. But I'm less keen on her timbre: her voice is often harsh at the top of the register and occasionally rather underpowered at the low end. The other characters were mostly well sung, with Jonathan Summers giving us a fine account of Captain Balstrode, one of the few more humane characters in the Borough.

Peter Grimes is a vivid story, compellingly told with some heart-stopping music. This isn't a flawless production, but it's illuminated by the wonderful performance from Davis and the orchestra, and was certainly good enough to persuade me of the virtues of this opera.