Peter Grimes may deserve the place it has gained in the operatic canon, but it’s not a work without problems. Most of all, Montagu Slater’s libretto is really no triumph; though it might be forgiven a certain tweeness on account of its subject matter (perhaps it makes sense to imagine these quaint village people speaking in this mannered fashion), phrases such as “manly calendar” are just impossible to defend. Where this opera unequivocally succeeds is in its music; it’s the haunting, ambiguous voice of the orchestral interludes, above all, which grants Peter Grimes its curious emotive pull. And so it felt very right indeed to hear it performed in the concert hall, with the orchestra centre stage – and especially with as fine an orchestra as the London Philharmonic, under Vladimir Jurowski’s white-hot direction.

LPO with Vladimir Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall © Richard Cannon
LPO with Vladimir Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall
© Richard Cannon

What’s more, the dramatic side of the opera received as clear, intelligent and lucid a treatment as any full staging is likely to provide, with all corners of the Royal Festival Hall stage put to excellent use by Daniel Slater. A few ropes, some chairs and a jumper are all the props needed to tell this story, and that’s all it had here in Alex Doidge-Green’s design, along with some eloquent blocking and effective, sometimes very striking lighting (the latter by Tim Mascall). This economy led to a production so effective that I didn’t even miss a full staging: the balance between the elements was, in fact, just right, with the story well told and ample room left over to focus on the music-making.

And what music-making – from all concerned. I stick by my opinion that it’s the orchestral music that really makes the opera great, but Stuart Skelton’s Peter Grimes was so utterly compelling tonight that it would have carried the performance on its own. This was an astonishing characterisation, both physically (right down to his slow, waddling walk) and musically – the variation of tone in his voice is incredible, veering from gruff and rugged, via one hell of a yell, all the way through to plaintive and gentle. And yet somehow it’s all totally believable as one character – this Grimes is every inch the complex, nuanced figure that Britten must have sensed in George Crabbe’s poem. It’s a masterpiece. He’s singing the role again with English National Opera in January. Don’t miss it.

He was well supported as well, with Alan Opie a powerful Captain Balstrode and Pamela Armstrong a tender Ellen Orford, who found the necessary compassion in the role but was perhaps limited by its material – she’s not the most three-dimensional of operatic heroines. The tavern-cum-brothel-keeper Auntie is another character who lacks depth, and Pamela Helen Stephen’s portrayal also wasn’t quite naughty enough, making those tavern scenes in which Grimes was absent drag slightly. Further vocal performances from Jean Rigby (Mrs Sedley), Michael Colvin (Bob Boles), Brindley Sherratt (Swallow) and Jonathan Veira (Hobson) all impressed, and London Voices were a passionate, alert chorus with a huge sound – but nobody distracted attention away from what was, vocally speaking, one hundred per cent Stuart Skelton’s night.

Vladimir Jurowski’s affinity with the LPO is beyond question by this point in their decade-long professional relationship, and his clinical, driven approach to the score brought some beautifully clear playing from the orchestra. And time and again, a scene’s climax would arrive almost by surprise, and be all the more breathtaking for it: Jurowski has mastered the subtle, scene-long build-up of tension. The interludes flowed with a glassy sheen; they were the true heart of the opera here, almost turning the scenes which came between them into interludes themselves.

Brilliant though it was, this performance was something of an inevitability, given its context: Southbank Centre and the LPO have this weekend resumed The Rest is Noise, their year-long survey of 20th-century music, with a weekend almost entirely focused on Britten in his centenary year. Such a focus might have seemed disproportionate in another year, or indeed in another country – but it’s impossible to imagine a better case being put for Britten’s importance than that provided here. I arrived a few hours early for Peter Grimes to catch a taste of the atmosphere at the festival, and was blown away by the spectacularly high quality of Noye’s Fludde, an LPO production featuring beneficiaries of the orchestra’s various education schemes, from young schoolchildren all the way up to the young professionals of Foyles Future Firsts. A packed audience on the Clore Ballroom floor were treated to the most professional children’s show I’ve ever seen. This piece and Peter Grimes combined show the impressive scope of Britten’s achievements – if they can all be executed as well as they were here, then the more weekends dedicated to him, the better.

*****