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June 22, 2011 6:14 pm

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

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It is two years to the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth in 2013. That will clearly be the opportunity for a major re-evaluation of his work as a composer, but the years leading up to the anniversary have not seen any holding back in the performances of his operas – a sign of how central their place is now in the world’s opera houses.

This revival of Willy Decker’s striking production of Peter Grimes reminds us why. Bold and stark, it shuts out all the quaint, 1940s English local colour and focuses on the tragic drama at the opera’s heart. The issues are presented as black-and-white in every sense – a colourless, harsh world, where a closed community is so preoccupied with survival against the elements that it cannot tolerate any outsider in its midst. Decker has no doubt where his heart lies: this Peter Grimes is clearly shown to be innocent and the people of the Borough are heartless, unsympathetic prigs.

Each of the three principals in this revival has what might kindly be called vocal issues. For much of the evening Ben Heppner sings with as magisterial a tenor as any heard in the title role and that only makes the couple of passages when things go awry – most painfully the scene in his hut – more disappointing. But his Peter Grimes, a kindly old grizzly bear mauled by society to his destruction, is deeply moving in his decline.

As Ellen Orford, Amanda Roocroft matches some hard-edged singing to a portrayal notable for its caring softness. Jonathan Summers makes Balstrode a bluff old seafarer with some blustery top notes. Among the large supporting cast the strengths are Alan Oke’s crazed Bob Boles, Roderick Williams’s warm-hearted Ned Keene, and Jane Henschel, nearly turning Mrs Sedley into a major role.

The performance as a whole takes its time to get going. Andrew Davis, the conductor, spends much of the first act dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s, leaving the communal singing at the Boar Inn becalmed. But once he has the wind in his sails the music takes off and a force eight gale of intensity, carried on some tremendous playing by the orchestra, powers the later acts inexorably to their devastating conclusion.

 

 

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