It takes a brave company to stage a major Britten revival the year after the composer’s centenary. Last year saw England saturated with the composer’s music; even die-hard fans were begging for respite. But even with the memory of Aldeburgh’s astonishing Grimes on the Beach still fresh in eyes and ears, English National Opera’s Peter Grimes is no postscript. David Alden’s dark, postwar reading was startling back in 2009, and this first revival if anything finds more intensity, more horror in its shadows.
Relocating the action to 1945, Alden presents us with a society and a community irretrievably damaged. In an opera that both musically and dramatically pits individual against collective, it’s revealing to have these categories dissolved and obscured, creating counter-currents against the inescapable pull of Britten’s North Sea and its tragic conclusion.
Resident pimp and publican “Auntie” (the magnificent Rebecca de Pont Davies) becomes an androgynous creature fresh from Weimar cabaret, stalking the stage in a pinstriped suit. The Nieces (Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan) become the girlish mannequins of a horror film – full-grown children clutching dolls, their emotions so bastardised and blunted as to find expression only in the jerky repeated motions of automatons. Ned Keane the apothecary (a brilliant, surreal turn by Leigh Melrose) and even the aged Mrs Sedley (Felicity Palmer) round out a cast of grotesques whose ticks and quirks reach a horrific climax at the Moot Hall dance.
Against these cartoonish creatures are silhouetted the opera’s central characters – Ellen, Peter, Bulstrode. Thanks to such strong casting, they emerge with rare clarity. Stuart Skelton returns as a man-child Grimes – a villain who had no hand in his casting, who doesn’t know his own strength. There’s an innocence to Skelton’s Grimes that chafes exquisitely painfully against the strength and masculinity of his singing. Only in “Now the Great Bear…” do we glimpse the fragile, broken soul within. The major change to the 2014 cast is the addition of the South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen. Forthright and tender, she matches Skelton for humanity, finding desperate hopefulness in the beautiful music in which Britten conjures her dreams.
But the real stars here are the chorus. Bolstered to enormous numbers under the vivid, bold direction of Edward Gardner, they deliver the shattering blows that will break any audience. In a single moment they transform proscenium opera into music drama, standing at the edge of the stage and delivering those great, accusatory cries of “Peter Grimes!” Gardner may be leaving ENO, but in this Grimes, in his careful work with chorus and orchestra, he leaves them with quite a legacy.
At the other end of the spectrum from the sprawling societal tragedy of Peter Grimes is the domestic conflict of Michael Tippett’s King Priam. It’s a curious work, one that takes the giant scope of the Trojan War and examines not its battlefields and widescreen vistas, but the human drama playing out in tents and homes, between husbands and wives, fathers and sons. Spare scoring reflects this intimacy, stripping away strings altogether in Act II except for a lone guitar. In English Touring Opera’s new production things are even more sinewy than usual, with the work performed in Iain Farrington’s reduced orchestration.
It’s a piece that should work in the confines of small regional theatres and the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre but doesn’t quite. This is partly an issue with the orchestra. Banished with the conductor Michael Rosewell behind a curtain at the back of the stage, Tippett’s telling instrumental lines are muffled and oddly distanced from the voices with which they duel and dialogue. The voices, by contrast, are painfully dominant, taking rather too literally Tippett’s instructions for a “tough” and “declamatory” style.
Charne Rochford’s Achilles yells at us with as much artistry as he can muster at such painful heights and volumes, and Roderick Earle’s Priam is little better. His voice seems oddly hollowed-out – a husk, stripped of most body and meat by Tippett’s thankless vocal writing. The women fare better, and Laure Meloy’s Hecuba and Camilla Roberts as Andromache command their all-female scenes with authority and the only emotion on show here.
The designer Anna Fleischle’s sets and costumes set us in a quasi-authentic 1950s classical drama, complete with animal skins, togas and loincloths. Such literalism doesn’t help this Brechtian drama’s cause, anchoring it in specificity when it would rather be free to roam among abstractions. Director James Conway obviously believes in the work, but his attempts to persuade his audience to share his conviction are thwarted at almost every turn by Tippett himself.
This is ambitious writing, but in its quest for artistic excellence it doesn’t bother itself with decorative details such as beauty. It’s a tough ask for any audience to warm to a piece that so consistently and aggressively rejects their interest and affection.