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David Alden’s production returns for its second revival, following its premiere in 2009 when the production won a South Bank Sky Arts Award in the Opera category.
Among Britten’s best-known operas, Peter Grimes is the tale of an ostracised outsider turned upon by the community, set against the melodramatic and claustrophobic backdrop of a Suffolk fishing village. Peter Grimes has long been associated with the ENO; with the opera receiving its original premiere by the ENO (then Sadler’s Wells Opera) in 1945.
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The ENO might be facing its most crucial season of the last few decades, considering that its survival was severely threatened a few months ago. To demonstrate that the company must stay where and how it is, a revival of the 2009 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes has been chosen to start off the 23/24 season, a true example of an English opera that matches perfectly everything that the ENO represents. Gwyn Hughes Jones sings the main role as a lonely and misunderstood fisherman that will suffer the psychological abuse of his local community following the apparently accidental death of his young apprentice and, together with Martyn Brabbins’ conducting and David Alden’s direction, delivers an intense performance that will surely please both the loyal ENO followers and possible newcomers that might come to the opera theatre for the first time.
The production, mostly depicting a typical pub and sea-shore locations, works wonderfully during most of its length: the orchestra provided us with some amazing playing during the famous interludes, particularly the Passacaglia and the Storm, whose power and orchestral sound meant a nice contrast to the almost unaccompanied arias and monologues. The choir was simply stunning, able to create a terrifying wall of sound that succeeded when portraying a raging mob that takes gossiping to the next level. Other sections stood out as well for dramatic reasons, for example the dialogue between Peter and Ellen Orford (an inspired Elizabeth Llewellyn) that gets mixed up by the religious service in true Coppola style. That moment, and Peter Grimes’ last appearance in the final act, were emotionally powerful and summarised the strengths of the production, the dramatic force and the psychology of the characters.
While we need to acknowledge that Gwyn Hughes Jones’ psychological portrayal of Grimes turned out to be really mature singing and acting, I was disappointed at the secondary characters, who in general lacked vocal projection and didn’t quite match the rest of the ensemble (apart from Christine Rice in the role of Auntie). Most of their interactions felt out of context and, perhaps attempting to have a comical effect, ended up being ridiculous and very distracting to the development of the plot. Both Nieces, portrayed by Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd, were convincing in their bizarre role, although as the opera went on their pointless dances and unnatural behaviours put them in a completely different setting as the rest of the cast. At times, there was just too much chaos and miming that had nothing to do with their contribution to the story.
Nevertheless, ENO’s Peter Grimes is, more than anything, a well-rounded performance and a production that will make the audience think and reflect about the way we morally behave as a society. At a time where most of our entertainment doesn’t last for more than 15 seconds, it’s fantastic to experience a slower-paced drama that puts mental health, loneliness and social pressure in the spotlight under the appearance of a pacific Suffolk village.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Peter Grimes steals Peter Grimes. Yet the force with which Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones portrays the fisherman shunned by his small town might severely unbalance a less coherent production. It is thanks to David Alden’s psychologically-attuned direction that Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera remains searingly relevant and consistently absorbing.
Beyond the obvious parallels of its investigation into the febrile politics of populism, it is the humanity of Alden’s Grimes that shines through and refutes any accusations of anachronism. The titular character’s tragic contortions to escape his East Anglian village tormentors and self-sabotaging pursuit of happiness provide a timeless canvas for exploration.
Hughes Jones’ is magnificent as a hulking Grimes. He brings a violent mass to the role that not only makes for a believable fisherman, ostracised after his apprentice dies aboard his boat, but also provides a visceral counterpoint during his deeply affecting turns of emotion. This is a man who has been hurt – but this is clearly a man who can hurt in return. And Hugh Jones cloaks himself in that ambiguity, driving the production’s central dilemma. His belting tenor overpowers us and creates a recognisable core of humanity in a character easily reduced to a mere beast in the wrong hands.
Paired with Elizabeth Llewellyn’s crisp soprano in role of Ellen, Grimes’ lone sympathiser in the village, they create a harrowing portrayal of frustrated love. Llewellyn is less compelling without Grimes. Her set piece with the two nieces (ably if sinisterly played by Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd) lacks magnetism and symbolises the biggest issue with the production and composition; that Grimes is the most rounded character by far and the others lack enough presence and backstory to maintain the production’s vigour in his too-frequent absences from the stage.
The notable exceptions are Alex Otterburn’s puckish rendition of Ned Keene and the ENO chorus playing the villagers. The chorus provide the production’s pulsating power and most memorable moments such as when they confront Grimes under the spell of an ominous drumbeat and booming bass of Hobson played by David Soar. Their discombobulating chaos, masterfully choreographed by Maxine Braham, perfectly captures the swirling terror of a crowd.
But nowhere is Alden’s emphasis on Peter Grimes’ psychological turmoil better observed than in Paul Steinberg’s staging. The forced perspective cuboid background means the chorus appear far beyond the edges of what’s happening before rapidly imposing their presence on the front of the stage. Adam Silverman’s lighting of every character, but particularly Grimes, creates an entirely other production in the shadows cast on the walls; shadows that serve to remind us of the beasts lying under each character’s surface.
Beneath it all, Britten’s score swells. Conductor Martyn Brabbins and the ENO Orchestra bring Britten’s magisterial creation to startling life, with the Sea Interludes particularly deft. Together, the production is an inspired excavation of the psychology of turmoil that subtly poses the question; how much have we really changed in the past 78 years?
After great success in 2009 and 2014, David Alden’s production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’ returns to the ENO’s stage promising audiences an engaging re-telling of the celebrated opera, packed full of emotion and violence.
Britten wrote ‘Peter Grimes’ in 1945, inspired by George Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’. He grew up on the Suffolk coastline which is where the opera is set. The story explores the nature of a close-minded and fearful people that live in a small fishing village in Suffolk. After the unfortunate death of Peter Grimes’ young apprentice, the townspeople begin to view the fisherman as a disturbing presence within the community. Ignoring the unsavoury characters amongst themselves, the town develops a mob mentality and pin local issues onto Grimes.
Originally interpreted as a critique of Britain’s intolerance of homosexuality and pacifists, director David Alden introduces a unique perspective on the 78-year-old opera. Set in 1940s post war Britain, Alden encourages the audience to consider the parallels between the victimisation of Grimes with the current use of scapegoating in modern political discourse. This was a culturally relevant and inspired take.
Paul Steinberg’s minimal yet effective set design brings Alden’s vision to life. The rusty industrial design adds to the darkness of the drama and reflects the cold mood of the townspeople. Steinberg plays with dimension by raising parts of the stage and placing flats at peculiar, jarring angles creating the perfect setting for Grimes’ sanity to unravel.
There are times when the movement feels unnatural and awkward, which is particularly true for the two sisters- the nieces of Auntie, the landlady of the local pub. They maintain odd physicality and vacant facial expressions throughout the opera, alluding to previous abuse by the men in the village. However, their synchronised robotic style is reminiscent of the Grady sisters in The Shining and often takes the attention away from the main action on stage. In another scene, the chorus-mob surrounds Grimes, chastising him whilst performing 60s dance-inspired hand motions which, again, are more distracting than intimidating. Despite this, the large chorus is compelling in song and produce some breathtaking moments.
The conductor, Martyn Brabbins, skilfully leads the orchestra through the score. His talent is most notable in the interludes. The complexity of these rich seascapes is perfectly delivered and had myself and other audience members leaning forward in our seats, peering into the orchestra pit utterly mesmerised.
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Peter Grimes) is certainly a stand-out. His commitment to character and vocal dexterity is thrilling. Jones gives a compelling performance of a man divorced from society, alone and lost due to his inability to recognise the consequences of his own anger and misdirected strength. Grimes is unwilling to help himself or accept kindness from others when it’s offered. This leads to a tragic end for him, for the Borough, and for the audience.
On its original run in 2009, David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes was considered a magnificent company achievement for ENO. In this second revival of that 2009 production, the company remains magnificent, and demonstrates that Britten’s seminal opera has lost none of its pungency.
Adapted from George Crabbe’s 1810 poem The Borough, Grimes is the tale of the eponymous fisherman’s struggle against mob hysteria, as rumours surrounding the mysterious death of his apprentice fester amongst the townsfolk with tragic consequences. It can make for one of the most harrowing and moving of all operatic evenings.
It is therefore a great pleasure to report that Alden’s Grimes is merciless. There is no warmth in colours of costume nor lighting, and hardly any semblance of decency in the grotesque ensemble that forms the Borough. Everything we see serves to amplify the score’s transformation of this English fishing village into something captivatingly repulsive. A mixing of naturalist and expressionist elements masterfully instils a sense of unease: the Act I storm unleashes the full forces of nature upon sets of the most contrived and artificial angles; the nieces and the apprentice move like inhuman puppets compared with the rest of the ensemble, and exaggerated shadows transform the chorus into one three times its number, thanks to Adam Silverman’s effective lighting.
Paul Steinberg’s sets are unremittingly claustrophobic – an omnipresent roof of corrugated iron encages even outdoor scenes. The barren stage of the final tableau feels somehow more constricted than the cramped mob scene that came before; a juxtaposition that strips the audience’s attention down to the drama’s psychological core and enhances the sparseness of Britten’s score.
The climactic mad scene is the highlight of Gwyn Hughes Jones’ role debut as Grimes, which he delivers with exceptional pathos. His subtlety as a true singing actor fully convinces one of Britten’s characterisation of Grimes – a man split in two, unable to control himself; at once guilt-ridden over the death of his first apprentice (see his self-flagellatory attitude to the storm), and at the next instant possessed by a rash drive for success that leads him back into abusive behaviours that he immediately regrets. However, Hughes Jones’ tendency to scoop up into notes disrupts some of the music’s lyricism, most notably in “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades.”
The remainder of the ensemble cast are uniformly excellent. Of note is John Findon’s Bob Boles; an ENO Harewood Artist, Findon possesses a tenor of strident power. Elizabeth Llewelyn’s soprano is one of exceptional beauty. She is the only singer to pursue a purity of tone consistently, capturing the ever-hopeful naivety of her Ellen, one of only two characters sympathetic to Peter. The ENO Orchestra, under the baton of music director Martyn Brabbins, shine in moments of intense lyricism but are, regrettably, strangely restrained in the most violent elements of the score. The ENO Chorus make up for the lack of violence with their overwhelming climaxes – it is they who musically cement the horror of this powerfully nightmarish production.
ENO’s choice to revive David Alden’s 2009 production of Peter Grimes this year left all involved with big shoes to fill. Edward Gardner’s acclaimed precision and intensity as conductor hung over new music director Martyn Brabbins. After Stuart Skelton’s acclaimed 2009 performance of the titular protagonist – a role aspired to by tenors just as straight theatre actors long for Hamlet – Gwyn Hughes Jones faced a weighty task (and a role debut, no less) in playing Grimes. Despite some slipshod moments, Alden’s Grimes, like the opera’s outrageously popular 1945 premiere, still has legs.
The fantastically on-form ENO chorus, reaching their apogee in Act Three as they roar ‘Peter Grimes!’ in tidal waves of sound, pack more of a punch than the orchestra’s impersonation of the roiling sea and sky in Act One. But it’s the use of silence that’s particularly compelling: a rumbling timpani you only realise was there once it stops ahead of Grimes’ ‘Now the Great Bear…’; Rudy Williams’ eerily quiet apprentice only speaking up for a glissando scream as he finally, fatally falls; the absence of surtitles in Grimes’ last monologue, underlining his isolation, as even that connection to the audience is lost.
That final moment is also, unfortunately, the only moment when Jones’ performance is truly moving. But perhaps this is fitting. Neil Powell suggests Grimes is ‘one of the great tragic characters’, a thesis Britten bears out in his Greek tragic three-act structure, choric ode-like orchestral interludes, and prologue. The greatest pain for Greek tragic heroes was exile from their city, their polis, and though the Borough is no Argos, Grimes’ final realisation that he must leave his ‘harbour’ correspondingly hits the hardest. No longer is the time when he matched Ellen’s note at the end of their opening duet.
This is an excellent cast. Elizabeth Llewellyn’s strong projection is true to Ellen’s outspoken character, and Alex Otterburn (Ned Keene) has a voice as supple as his writhing body, elastic as, supine, he reaches lecherously for the Nieces’ (Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd) schoolgirl skirts in Act One. Though the Nieces stiffly stalking around onstage à la The Shining’s Grady twins is initially an alienating, not immediately eloquent choreographic choice by Maxine Braham, it’s a nice touch when their doll-like posture relaxes in Ellen’s maternal embrace during the ladies’ quartet in Act Two.
Alden dislocates the opera from its original 1830s setting to postwar 1945, making its themes speak in and to a different time. Just as Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible (rural community finding scapegoats – sound familiar?) used the Salem witch trials to think about contemporary McCarthyism, the choice to restage this production in 2023, with the tagline ‘unfollowed’, speaks persuasively to our time: the trials by fire of cancel culture. Can the townsfolk reasonably say ‘the Borough keeps its standards up’ whilst lawyer Swallow (Clive Bayley) conducts business, at one point, post-coitally, with his trousers still down? Can we ‘cast the first stone’?
Peter Grimes: the epitome of isolation and mob rule in a remote Suffolk village. Benjamin Britten’s swelling, building rhythms beautifully imitate the rippling tides sweeping over sand on a crisp day. Masterful conductor Martyn Brabbins picks out unexpected details in the sublime score and centres them in creative ways. Notably, Act I balances flute and horn to perfection. Then Act III brought chills to my spine when the tambourine evoked being threatened by a rattlesnake poised to strike.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Ellen Orford expresses wild delight in sunshine and nature, highlighting the happier notes in the otherwise sombre opening of Act II. I particularly enjoyed Alex Otterburn’s Ned Keene blithely dashing about encouraging debauchery and drug abuse. However, the ensemble does not maintain the threatening menace achieved in Act I.
Insightful set designer Paul Steinberg channels Britten’s original plan for the score to underpin the division between interior and exterior: only when the pub door opens do we hear the stormy gales and torrential rain. What a pub door! The entire side of the building lifts, visually reinforcing the tremendous noise from the orchestra. Tension is built throughout by lighting designer Adam Silverman’s use of light and shadow. These dramatic contrasts emphasise the villagers’ addictions, obsessions and Grimes’ increasing isolation.
Updating the setting to 1945 is a good decision, as anything more modern would render the language anachronistic. However, the costumes are overwhelmingly drab and fail spectacularly during the pivotal psychological breakdown scene. As Grimes’ jersey is the same colour as the floor, it’s almost impossible for the audience (in the circles) to see anything other than face and hands. This disorientating visual pulls you out of the story.
The plot explores the exploitation of three surviving, vulnerable children. Grimes’ new apprentice, John, appears as a holocaust survivor: emaciated, silent, shaven and haunted. The pre-pubescent twins live with pub-come-brothel owner ‘Auntie’, and have to deal with the lecherous patrons, including possibly even their own father. They are Lolita-like puppets to Auntie’s pinstriped pimp.
Everything builds towards a mob lynching that is disappointingly never fulfilled. We get strong Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies associations from Auntie’s boars-head hat and the repeated rope imagery: Grimes plaits one, ties himself up, the twins cast a shadow of a hanging and John dies due to Grimes’ negligence using rope. Instead, it is best friend, Captain Balstrode, who pushes the protagonist to commit suicide, not the mob. Why? Director David Alden hints at an unexpected love triangle between Balstrode, Ellen and Grimes. But are Balstrode and Ellen really there? Or is this part of Grimes’ paranoia and unprocessed grief? Are they the two sides of his conscience? Regardless, Gwyn Hughes Jones renders the descent into madness with beautiful, sonorous howls.
This remains a powerful exploration of hypocrisy and depravity with a phenomenal score: well worth watching.
“Peter Grimes! We are here to investigate the cause of death of your apprentice William Spode, whose body you brought ashore from your boat.”
This chilling declaration opens Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes as it plunges us headlong into a gripping tale of accusation, isolation, and a relentless search for the truth. Set in the fictional fishing village of The Borough, David Alden’s rendition of the classic opera is modern and gritty, complemented by a fantastic set design that vividly brings the 19th-century coastal setting to life. A unique take on perspective, the industrial stage walls slant inwards, creating a bleak, claustrophobic environment that effectively conveys Grimes’ despair and desperation.
It’s no wonder Alden’s 2009 interpretation has received critical acclaim since its debut – its refined production continues to impress with its poetically poignant story and haunting soundworld. Delivered with emotion and precision, the orchestra, led by the masterful Martyn Brabbins, maintains impressive control of being heard when it wants to be – balancing between an overpowering cacophony of instrumentals during the raging storm sequence, and lingering in silence as the performers sang acapella. The familiar “Storm” interlude, in particular, is a tour de force of orchestration that mirrors the tempestuous emotions of the characters.
As expected from the ENO’s first opera of the season, Alden’s characterization is nothing short of phenomenal. Gwyn Hughes Jones, in the title role of Peter Grimes, commands the stage in unkempt fisherman’s attire and a manic determination in his song, making Grimes’s journey from misunderstood outcast to tragic figure deeply affecting. Particularly effective was how, much of the characters’ disposition and development was shown, not told. Alden’s brilliant use of silence in the opera speaks volumes – Abused apprentice John (Rudy Williams) never speaks, only suffers in muted protest; Ellen’s (Elizabeth Llewellyn) realisation of her role in John’s death is quiet and profound; and a grave silence lingers long after Peter’s eventual acceptance of his fate.
However, amidst the eloquent melancholy of the production, Peter Grimes finds itself occasionally overshadowed by peculiar moments, not quite comical or formal, that stand out sorely from the sombre intensity of the piece. A leading example is no doubt the ‘The Shining’-esque nieces (Ava Dodd and Cleo Lee-McGowan). Moving in eerie robotic synchrony, they make strange entrances to be pursued and groped by tavern men, or to writhe rhythmically across the stage without a clear purpose. Previous renditions of the opera have painted them as vulgar comic relief, or to emphasize the community’s queerness with their role as ‘women of the night’. Alden’s version, however, seems to give them far too significant a role with no meaningful reason, diverting attention from the solemn beauty of the actual storyline.
Despite these quirks, David Alden’s Peter Grimes offers a simple yet profound exploration of truth and the human condition, intricately woven with striking character tropes, ingenious set design, and an enchanting score that promises to linger long after the curtains fall.
Peter Grimes, as a story, is fairly grim – child abuse, morality, violence, death, rejection, and suicide, for most people doesn’t initially sound like a evening out. However, coupled with the impactful music of Britten, the ENO bring this world to life in a huge way.
Even before the lights went down, the performances started as the ENO chorus filed through to upstage, enhancing the already anticipatory atmosphere. The chorus were hugely dynamic, dramatic and on top vocal form. No chorus member felt wasted, which is impressive considering the size of the ensemble, and are utilised so cleverly throughout the evening. The whole opera had a dark, spooky edge to it reflected not only in the performances, but also in the look of the production. The angular build of the set and set pieces allows for the lighting to be designed in such a way that it casts shadows on the walls of the set, which gives this already dark opera an even more sinister edge. The set moves and morphs with the story, commanded by the chorus, and feels like a twisted pop-up storybook. The moments where the stage is busy are striking and capture the heart of this opera perfectly.
Other performers on top vocal form were Gwyn Hughes Jones and Elizabeth Llewellyn, our Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford respectively. These two voices complimented eachother excellently. Hughes Jones takes Grimes on the character’s full emotional journey – from ashamed, guilty, to bullying and volatile, right through to desperate and almost numb from his actions. Vocally, Hughes Jones does not faulter, and he particularly shines when aggressive as his vocals become raw and gritty in the most satisfying way possible. In contrast, Llewellyn enhances Ellen’s empathetic nature, giving her a bit of bite to her character as well. Her tone is so sweet and unwavering – her higher vocal register particularly breathtaking.
Dramatically, this production is spot on, with the acting being convincing and effective. Particular performances to note here are Alex Otterburn as Ned Keene, who is physical and vivid in the role, and John Findon as Bob Boles, who you would not believe is an emerging artist. Both of these roles, in my opinion, could not be better cast. Findon on the floor playing a very drunk Boles whilst singing in full voice was perhaps one of the most impressive moments of the whole opera.
By contrast, the interlude moments during the show are equally impactful as the orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, rightfully have their moment. Brabbins had the ENO orchestra perfectly under control without them being restrained, and the sound they created was beautiful and dynamic, keeping the entire audience on the edge of their seats.
However, with all that said, I think this could be summed up in one sentence: This is the production that has made me fall in love with opera.