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First and foremost this is a heartening company achievement. There was a time in the dark days of the 1990s when it seemed as though English National Opera would never get its act together again but a long period of renewal has progressively led to top-quality performances such as this – a Peter Grimes well played and well sung down to the last fisherman on deck.
The main driver in recent years has been music director Edward Gardner and it is big news for ENO that he will be leaving at the end of the 2014-15 season. The operas of Britten have been among the highlights of his tenure, and so it was again here. Everything he touches in the score of Peter Grimes comes to life, the waves on the shingle beach, the gulls’ screeching, the wild intensity of the storm.
A special word of praise, too, to the ENO Chorus for its concentrated singing, not least in the quieter moments.
David Alden’s production, dating from 2009, leaves mixed feelings. It is specific about time (the 1940s at the end of the war, when the opera was written), but not place. The sharp angles of its abstract settings are heightened by expressionist lighting. The characters increasingly tip over into the grotesque, so Swallow appears in drag, Mrs Sedley gets groped, and rhythmical tics abound. Other productions have gone down this route but somehow this one loses the opera’s soul on the way.
Even Grimes himself takes time to lay claim to our sympathy. But Stuart Skelton sings the role impressively, combining the power for this big theatre with a lot of tenderness, and his very central portrayal of Grimes as a burly fisherman of simple stock lacks only the intensity of Jon Vickers or Philip Langridge to put him in the top league.
Elza van den Heever sings Ellen Orford’s “Embroidery” aria with pinpoint, silvery tone, but is short on strength lower down, and Iain Paterson makes a distinguished Balstrode. Every lesser character in Alden’s morally corrupt Borough is well taken, Rebecca de Pont Davies an “alternative”, besuited Auntie, Matthew Best a pompous Swallow, Leigh Melrose a near-delinquent Ned Keene, and Felicity Palmer, 70 this spring, delightfully turns Mrs Sedley into a half-crazed Miss Marple figure – the best of all.