ENO is back with a brand new season, and it’s like nothing’s changed. Fraught with threats of exile from London and the risk of extinction by Arts Council England funding cuts, it was expected that the Coliseum’s residents would pull a reverse Dick Whittington and re-establish themselves (presumably) in Manchester. Much to the disappointment of Manchester I’m sure, it’s business as usual for ENO for at least the next few years, or whenever it’s politically useful to give them a kicking.
For the company, making the most of a (less than expected but still sizable) budget cut means fewer new shows, more revivals, no risks and a ‘bangers and cash’ programming model. We’re getting the hits: Puccini; Gilbert and Sullivan; Mozart; Rossini and Ruder’s Handmaids Tale, which was very successful in its debut a few seasons back. Anyway, Deborah Warner’s gritty Peter Grimes sold out the Royal Opera House for the length of its run a season or so ago, so it’s time to dust off David Alden’s 2009 production now that Benjamin Britten has proved safe at the box office.
Fisherman Peter Grimes is on trial for the death of his apprentice. He attests that after being stuck at sea for three days without water, the boy died a natural death. Despite efforts to turn around his fate by hiring a new apprentice, pursuing larger shoals and planning to wed the sympathetic schoolmistress Ellen Orford, the residents of The Borough turn on him. Over the course of three acts, he is hounded to his death.
Peter Grimes is not a sympathetic character, nor is he a villain; this knotty scenario is the beauty of Britten’s music and Montagu Slater’s libretto. Gwyn Hughes Jones makes his role debut as Peter Grimes. He has been made to look the part and will grow into the role. He sings the role perfectly and with a beautiful voice, but it’s not clear what sort of Peter he’s giving us – is he a brute or a babe? In contrast, his Ellen is Elizabeth Llewellyn, also a debut in the role and who is perfect from the off. She is clearly the show’s shining light, managing the strength of her character and also its tenderness. We weep!
This production lives up to the opera’s discomfort, in fusty 1940s attire; bleak, angular stages and rusty huts designed by Paul Steinburg. (On press night they were even offering a complimentary drenching on St Martin’s Lane which certainly fits the mood.)
In broad strokes, the show is good (plenty of movement, always something to look at, responds well to the music) but don’t take a look at the details. The stage punches are sloppy, there’s uncomfortable hand jiving and line dancing from the chorus (on fine voice, with no need to play with their hands). Overall, this staging that has been lauded as ‘excellent’ and ‘award winning’ might not have been suitable for a quick and easy rinse and repeat.
This time around, having a go in the pit is ENO Music Director Marty Brabbins. Unfortunately he’s bashing this one out and the result leaves much of the show, especially the famous sea interludes, without any feeling.
Produced by: ENO
Composed by: Benjamin Britten
Directed by: David Alden
Conducted by: Martyn Brabbins
Design by: Paul Steinburg
ENO’s Peter Grimes plays at The Coliseum until 11 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.