Stuart Skelton’s Peter Grimes is psychologically splintered from the outset, so much so that the entire opera may be a psychotic episode rather than a tale from a life. The Australian tenor’s portrayal of Britten’s doomed fisherman probed dark new depths in this concert performance at the Bergen International Festival where, without a conceptualising director to cramp his style, he was able to put his stamp on the role as never before. For ENO and at the BBC Proms, Skelton’s Grimes was prodigious; here, with Bergen National Opera, he dared to take it further still. From the outset it was apparent that bad things were destined to occur while the balance of his mind was disturbed.

Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) © Thor Brødreskift
Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes)
© Thor Brødreskift

The indefatigable Ed Gardner has slotted in rehearsals for Peter Grimes concurrently with conducting Eugene Onegin in Paris. Indeed, he was due back there for more Tchaikovsky just 24 hours after this performance. Yet there was nothing tired about the electricity with which he fired up the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Such was the panache, you’d think his players had Britten’s score in their bones, and the sight of these musicians at work on a platform rather than in an orchestra pit added its own act of theatre. From the elegiac solo viola to the weirdly funky Weimar quintet that opens the third act, this was a reading of immediacy and power.

Ed Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic © Thor Brødreskift
Ed Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic
© Thor Brødreskift

Both Skelton and the first-rate supporting company were compromised by the acoustic in the Grieghallen, an apple-turnover of a concert hall where the audience is banked up high and looks down on the performers. The soloists for this event were placed well forward of the acoustic baffles, beneath the highest point of the hall, so the swimming-bath sound was especially pronounced (although it will have been tamed by microphone placings for the video streaming). It took a while for the ear to adapt to the hollowness. Thankfully, so compelling were Gardner’s soloists that eventually the worry faded, although it was through no fault of theirs that Montagu Slater’s libretto never carried across as it should.

Giselle Allen, unrivalled as Ellen Orford since Grimes on the Beach, was joined by Roderick Williams, soon to be seen at the Aldeburgh Festival as that other Britten seafarer, Billy Budd, as a youthful but persuasive Captain Balstrode. So impeccably did both artists complement Skelton that it’s hard to believe neither will travel with the company when this Grimes visits the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Allen’s portrayal of a woman emotionally drawn to the rough fisherman but torn by the desire to protect his (here extraordinarily young) apprentice had a psychological complexity of its own; Williams, by contrast, imbued Balstrode with a telling belief in the virtues of bluff directness. He’s a friend to the fisherman, yet one unafraid to call him a fool. “Are you my conscience?” Grimes asks him, angrily; and yes, he is. As is Ellen.

Roderick Williams (Balstrode) and Cahterine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedley) © Thor Brødreskift
Roderick Williams (Balstrode) and Cahterine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedley)
© Thor Brødreskift

Colin Judson as Bob Boles and Annika Schlicht as Auntie offered notably well defined and projected characters, the latter sharing a cocktail of mezzo-soprano riches with Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a laudanum-chugging Mrs Sedley. Marcus Farnsworth was suitably feckless as Ned Keene, James Gilchrist excellent as a belevolently ineffective Rev Adams, while Barnaby Rea and Andrew Greenan defined Hobson and Swallow with plenty of detail: the one sullen and truculent, the other morally hypocritical.

150 choristers from Norway and from the Royal Northern College of Music upgraded Crabbe’s Borough from a village to a small town, and the surreal power of their collective baying added to the sense that Grimes had become lost in his own head. The chorus had it lucky: it was placed behind the orchestra, at the narrowest point where the turnover’s edges are crimped together. Backed by acoustic panels, the sound cut through with devastating clarity.

The simple semi-staging by Vera Rostin Wexelsen, essentially a changing disposition of barrels and kegs, was effective for its clarity and its acknowledgement that less can often be more. Her staging of the apprentice’s death was particularly telling: Grimes was distracted by the approaching mob as he lowered the boy down the cliff (or, to be literal, into the wings) and he unconsciously let slip the rope.

Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford) © Thor Brødreskift
Giselle Allen (Ellen Orford)
© Thor Brødreskift

Ultimately, though, this Peter Grimes was a tale of two talents: the conductor and the star. Symbiotic and sympathetic, they know each other’s interpretation inside out; and this performance felt like the apotheosis of their partnership. Gardner propelled his forces with an instinct for lyric drama that’s born of rich experience at ENO. His epic unfolding of Britten’s passacaglia was a tone poem in miniature; his storm interlude could have caused structural damage. As for Skelton, his trembling hand did all it could to calm a troubled brain – hushing his lips or holding his head – but the mind would not obey. He was less a thug than a man-child: a lost soul with the voice of a hero.

 

Mark Valencia's press trip was sponsored by Bergen International Festival

*****