Nothing – and everything. So simple, yet so suggestive. This Grimes starts with a bare stage and a body, and achieves its every effect with little more than a duckboard and a fishing net – shorthand for the tightly drawn, cage-like world view of the Borough, swaying back and forth like a boat at mooring, but also symbolising protection and security.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, designed by Anthony Ward and stunningly lit by Paule Constable, this Grimes nevertheless adds up to more than just a creative use of space. It is a demonstration of how to let opera express itself through music, rather than superimposing social commentary.
It is a magnificent example of stagecraft because it complements its stark, infinitely malleable images with the most telling animation of people.
And one of the most telling things of all is that Lloyd, like Britten, does not judge. The Borough is not a caricature of vindictiveness. Hard-working and hedonistic, it is utterly human in its failings.
Peter is neither saint nor sinner. Dressed in an oilskin, he assumes no madness or mystique beyond the ability – perhaps inspired by the book Balstrode finds at Grimes’s hut – to be poetic in the eye of the storm.
He is flesh-and-blood, as his very physical relationship with Ellen – full of positive sexual tension – reveals. He just lives and dies by his stubbornness.
But I would not be hailing this as the year’s best new opera production in the UK without the contribution of Richard Farnes and his outstanding orchestra.
Their performance is immaculately tuned and balanced, full of tensile beauty and syncopated dissonance. The whole ensemble sings as one, and we marvel again at Britten’s genius.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s shaven-headed bear of a Grimes impresses for his sheer honesty. Giselle Allen is the handsome, healthy Ellen, Christopher Purves a strong Balstrode.
When Opera North comes to London in a fortnight, this is the show to catch.
Sadler’s Wells, London, November 23 & 25.
Tel 0870 737 7737