Willy Decker’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, which originated at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1994 and was revived at London’s Royal Opera House in 2004 and 2011, has now reached Tokyo. The work opened the new season of the New National Theatre Tokyo, the capital’s main opera house, currently celebrating its 15th anniversary. It’s the first time the New National Theatre has staged Peter Grimes, and Decker himself directed this revival with great care and attention to detail.

Stuart Skelton and Susan Gritton in Peter Grimes at New National Theatre, Tokyo © Chikashi Saegusa
Stuart Skelton and Susan Gritton in Peter Grimes at New National Theatre, Tokyo
© Chikashi Saegusa

The opera’s anti-hero Peter Grimes is a solitary fisherman with violent tendencies who is at odds with the people of The Borough, a small coastal fishing village. The story is based on a poem by the 18th-century English poet George Crabbe, but whereas Crabbe’s Grimes is merely a violent bully, Britten portrayed Grimes more sympathetically as an outsider, a misfit and a victim of society. Willy Decker’s production has stripped away all the historical background and scenery (although the costumes are essentially period and not modern dress) – there is no sea and no boat, and only John MacFarlane’s evocative dark sky hints at the East Anglian landscape. Rather, Decker focuses on the psychology of the people and portrays their mob mentality as the villagers hunt down Peter Grimes. The movement of every chorus member is directed in great detail; the stage is heavily raked throughout, using only lighting and large panels to change the scenery from the “Boar” Inn to the church and to Grimes’ hut. It all adds to the sense of oppression in the small village.

The boldest aspect of Decker’s interpretation is to suggest that Grimes’ only confidante Ellen Orford might become the Borough’s next victim. In the second half of Act III, Scene II, when the people come out after the dance party and discover that Grimes's apprentice has died, their chorus “Who holds himself apart / Lets his pride rise” is sung at Ellen in an accusing manner and they all point their fingers at her. In fact, in the original libretto, Ellen is not on stage at this point, but I found this scene particularly harrowing because it seemed to imply that Peter Grimes was not a unique case. To some, Decker’s interpretation of “outsider vs. society” may seem too black and white, but his production is well thought out, and I sensed that the whole cast – both soloists and chorus – was totally committed to it.

Musically, the quality of the performance was outstanding – as high as many of the performances of Peter Grimes I have seen in the UK. Stuart Skelton, hailed as the “Peter Grimes of our times”, was totally convincing both vocally and dramatically. Skelton’s highlight was his monologue in the hut scene, in which he expressed Peter’s confused state with great emotion and vulnerability, yet with fine control of the voice. Susan Gritton’s Ellen was the best I have heard on stage, played as a kind but strong-willed character: her embroidery song in Act III was sung beautifully and with sincerity. A strong supporting Japanese cast included Etsuko Kanoh as a really malicious Mrs. Sedley, wonderfully resonant baritone Kazunori Kubo as Swallow, and the lyric tenor Shuhei Itoga as Bob Boles. The excellent New National Theatre Chorus rose to the challenges of Decker’s demanding staging and sang magnificently. Experienced Britten conductor Richard Armstrong held everything together with a tight rein and the tension never lapsed. The playing of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in the orchestral interludes was not exactly virtuosic (there were some issues in the woodwind solos and horns) but considering that Britten’s operas are rarely performed in Japan, it was more than satisfactory.

On both days I attended the performance, the reception of the audience was hugely enthusiastic and there was obvious excitement in the theatre. Reception from my Japanese critic colleagues and opera fans has also been full of superlatives, our only reservation being that this production lacks the sense of the sea which is central to this opera, nor did the orchestra capture enough of the sea's contrasting moods. However, I think that the director didn’t want the story to be confined to a small fishing village and wanted to present it as a more universal societal issue. On this point he fully succeeded.