Written especially for Sadlers' Wells, which became ENO, Britten's Grimes has been a part of their repertoire since 1945, brought back in a revival of David Alden's 2009 production. Musically it's fabulous, but the production is not their best.
The story centres on Peter Grimes, an Aldeburgh fisherman. His apprentice has died accidentally, and Grimes is brought to an inquest. Grimes is determined to show the 'Borough' he is worth more than they think, by making his fortune fishing harder than anyone else. His new apprentice falls from a cliff after Grimes' hut is left precariously exposed following a massive storm. Despite the support of Ellen Orford, who loves Grimes and is trying to care for the boy, Grimes realises he is doomed and commits suicide.
Stuart Skelton (Grimes) sadly had bronchitis. Understudy Michael Colvin, brought up from Bob Boles, rose to the challenge, giving a performance that was both vocally and dramatically convincing. Colvin's Boles was sung by Robert Murray, who also performed well (if disturbingly, as the mad preacher). Elza van den Heever, who was due to play Ellen Orford (perhaps the real star / tragic heroine of the show?) was also ill, and the role was taken on by Judith Howarth. Again, she executed the part admirably. Matthew Best's Swallow was particularly notable, as his strong voice commanded the stage. A large chorus is used, and they performed powerfully, with strong singing and precise, well-sychronised gestures. The beauty of a good revival is that people know what they are doing, and I felt the chorus knew this production and were revelling in it.
The orchestra were magnificent. Conductor Edward Gardner took the music at a perfect pace, giving it a strength and intensity which made for a stunning evening. Grimes is known for its four sea interludes - many people will recognise these without appreciating their source. The orchestra did justice to their majesty, as they painted a soundscape of the tempestuous British coast. Whether it was the timpani rolling ominously in the background, or the harps wildly echoing the scene, everything was dramatic and powerful. There are lots of striking rests in Grimes, and the tension of the silence was also maintained throughout.
The staging is less convincing. A pre-set gives you a taste of what is to come.
Grey / blue panels, sometimes looking like walls, or corrugated sheets, are a great 'blank canvas' for the action, but add very little to the production. Yes, Grimes is a bleak tale in a bleak setting, but this gave no sense of context.
Grimes is a bleak show. There is no hope, no redemption. This said, the production cheapens the intensity of the emotion. Auntie - the local publican - has two 'nieces'. One moment they're schoolgirls with contorted necks moving in a marionette-like fashion, the next they're leaping around teasing men, or running round the stage in nightdresses. There's no consistency of character. Ned Keene the apothecary resembles a lascivious flash Harry, while even the lawyer Swallow is caught with his trousers down. The plague of vileness permeates the whole community to an almost ridiculous extent. Humour has its place in tragedy, but the elements in this production didn't add up to a convincing whole.
The Coliseum are running 'Secret Seats'. You pay £20, and are guaranteed a seat worth more, but they don't tell you where it is until three days before the show. On this occasion we were allocated seats at the front of the Dress Circle; it couldn't have worked out better.
The programme costs £6, but is worth purchasing. ENO programmes used to have wonderful designs and be collectors' items in their own rights, but then became a uniform blue colour. The cover designs are back.
The programme contains standard production information (synopsis, timings, cast, advertising, future performances), but also essays about the opera, etc. Whether you want to read it in the theatre, or take it home as a memento to browse later, it's a tangible reminder of your trip in a way a website never can be. Many a time I've found myself on the bus / tube / train home after a show discussing it because I've spotted a fellow passenger clutching the programme, and Grimes was no exception.
Storms battering the British coast, and a community outraged at suspected child abuse... Grimes is set in post-war Britain but I couldn't help reflecting how very relevant to the present day it is. If you want a wonderful musical experience, it's well-worth going, but the staging does not do the musicians justice.
ENO have taken the brave move of Storifying responses to the show, so you can easily check out other comments. They're also broadcasting this show. 'ENO screen' will see 300 cinemas show the performance on 23rd February 2014.
The remaining performances are on February 14th, 21st, 23rd and 27th 2014. Running time is 3 hours 10 minutes, and tickets start at £16.