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Peter Grimes

English National Opera's revival of their sensational production of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' is unmissable!


Last year the classical music world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten who was arguably this country’s finest composer. Under the auspices of Britten 100, orchestras and opera companies offered audiences an unparalleled feast of his extensive musical output.

The anniversary also offered musicologists and scholars the opportunity to explore more of Britten the person. Although he was gay at a time when being gay was illegal in Britain, often punishable by stiff prison sentences, he and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, managed to enjoy a relatively hassle-free life but of course could not demonstrate their love for each other in public.

Britten always considered himself an outsider, so it’s no surprise that he chose an early 19th century poem by George Crabbe called ‘The Borough’ as the basis for his first opera, Peter Grimes. With the rugged harsh East Anglian coast as a background, Peter Grimes tells the story of a lonely fisherman who is outcast from society and accused of murdering a young boy, his apprentice, who dies whilst they’re at sea. Part visionary, part tormented soul it’s easy to see how he character of Grimes resonated so strongly with the composer.

A triumph when it was first performed in 1945, English National Opera have now revived their epoch-making 2009 staging by maverick American opera director David Alden, and if anything its power and audacious theatricality is even more shattering than five years ago.

The sea is present in almost every bar of the score, and conductor Ed Gardner whips up a tsunami of sound and the orchestra plays every bar of this glorious score as if their collective lives depended on it.

Similarly Alden’s staging moves the action forward to after the Second World War, infusing the direction with German expressionism rather than English-cuteness, and in doing so presents a gallery of weird and disturbing characters who are hell bent on destroying Grimes.

It’s powerful stuff. The augment Chorus of ENO sing with a visceral power that pins you to the back of your seat and the entire cast is faultless. Stuart Skelton is superb as Grimes, whilst Elza van Den Heever as Ellen Orford, the only character who is sympathetic to Grimes’ plight, sings with strength and purity.

But it’s the combined impact of the singing, chorus, conducting and orchestral playing that is enhanced by Alden’s searingly-intense staging, making this the operatic must-see of the year. If you’ve never been to an opera before, then this would be the perfect introduction.

If you can’t make it to ENO in person, then hot-foot it to your local cinema on Sunday 23 February, as the performance will be beamed live into cinemas.

GT gives this 5 out of 5

Words: Keith McDonnell

Tickets and further information here: English National Opera

Photo: Robert Workman

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