Here was an unusual sight. After so many productions that have reimagined Peter Grimes in abstract or expressionist settings, Britten’s opera was back where the composer intended – a small fishing village in the 19th century, where cottages are weather-boarded against the east coast gales and storm-tossed waves break against the shore.
Following the deluge of Britten’s operas in 2013 for the composer’s centenary, one might have expected to have a breather. Instead, plucky Grange Park Opera has returned immediately to the fray and its new Peter Grimes rises impressively to the challenges of mounting such a large-scale work, even if it ultimately fails to get to the opera’s soul.
Jeremy Sams’s production presents the opera like a Dickens novel set to music. Grimes’s wretched apprentice is another Oliver Twist, sent out from the orphanage into a Victorian society stained by child cruelty. The idea works well enough and it matters little that George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”, which was the source of Britten’s inspiration, predates the Dickens by a generation. But the surroundings are stagey – the hammy drunken revellers, the Borough townsfolk choreographed like a chorus line – and tend to undercut the gritty realism of the main story.
Also, the central relationship never gels. Carl Tanner, singing through a bout of sinusitis, has a strong, resilient tenor and will surely make a powerful Grimes. What he has not yet found is the psychopath inside the man. When this Grimes turns up at the Boar, there is no obvious reason why the other drinkers should cower; in fact, one half expects him to buy a round. There is only muted electricity between him and Georgia Jarman’s somewhat shallow-voiced Ellen Orford, though she hits some silvery notes in her Embroidery aria.
As in Dickens, the supporting characters are a colourful lot and very strongly played here, especially Stephen Gadd’s sturdy Balstrode, Clive Bayley’s imposing Swallow, and Andrew Rees’s ranting Methodist preacher, Bob Boles. The young Grange Park Chorus does well and it is a major plus to have the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, playing expertly under Stephen Barlow’s rather laid-back baton. Everything looks good and is of high quality. The opera just does not touch a painful nerve, as it should.