"Peter Grimes" is the story of an outsider, a difficult man with no respect for his social "betters", nor for the class system and other niceties like that, and a vicious temper which he battles to control, often unsuccessfully. He's also a dreamer, with visions of a better life, of love offering him hope, and more wildly, of the stars drawing his destiny up from the sea's depths, and Davy Jones calling him home.
He's a fisherman, in a small Suffolk town modelled on Aldeburgh; the local community is close-knit, and mistrustful of those who stand a little apart. When Grimes' young apprentice dies at sea, gossip begins to spread that he caused the boy's death. He didn't; but gossip, as is its wont, has no interest in the truth. When his second apprentice is killed in a horrible accident, the hostility of the locals becomes open anger. Hounded by a mob and tortured by his own sense of guilt, Grimes breaks down and drowns himself.
I think part of what Britten was trying to articulate was the ease with which a blinkered but relatively normal community can become a mob baying for the blood of outsiders. As a gay man and a pacifist he knew plenty about being an outsider, after all; and by 1945 when "Peter Grimes" was premiered, the world in general had seem some truly horrifying examples of how easily a mob mentality can develop, and just what the scapegoating of those who don’t fit in can lead to.
My biggest beef with this production, which I've seen before and was cross about then, too, is that it turns all the assorted minor characters of the town into grotesques, either vile or comical. This makes it terribly, seductively easy for the audience to distance themselves from the scenes on stage.
At the second interval a woman behind me was exclaiming in cultured tones to her companions "Oh, those horrible, horrible people!"
But part of what Britten is trying to remind us of, in my opinion at least, is that these "horrible people" are all of us. Every mob that ever lived was composed of ordinary people like you and me - not of some extra layer of society that normally lives hidden under the rug. It’s a nasty thought, but one we do need to remember.
Oh well; if you ignore the director's ideas, and concentrate on the music, you got a performance to knock your socks off. The orchestra at ENO are superb and Britten’s wonderful score came bursting out of the cinema sound system with the force of hurricanes and tidal waves. The huge choral shouts of “Peter Grimes! Grimes!” at the end of Act 3 scene 1 were heart-stopping. All the smaller roles were superbly sung, and the three principals were magnificent.
I’ve raved about Stuart Skelton before; this is the third time I’ve seen him singing this role, and he remains unbeatable. Each time I hear him in action I fall in love with his glorious voice all over again. It’s huge, yet he can control it down to the smallest pianissimo. It’s seamlessly, goldenly beautiful, yet he’s not afraid to let it crack and grow momentarily raw with feeling, to use that fractional ugliness to shattering dramatic effect. He can act; his Grimes is a towering, tragic figure and his agony at the death of the boy John is painful to watch. He creates a figure of elemental stature, yet also one of pathetically human vulnerability; one suddenly starts to imagine what this man’s own childhood must have been like, to leave him like this.
He’s matched, this time, by a radiant Ellen Orford from Elza Van Den Heever, who sounds like an angel, acts like a RADA graduate, and can actually cry and sing (I didn’t know that was physically possible!). And another of my favourite singers, the lovely Iain Paterson, was a tremendous Captain Balstrode. One of the things I liked about the production was the way it clarifies their individual tragedies too; Ellen becomes a lonely war widow who in falling in love again has also unconsciously succumbed to the urge to “fix” a damaged man, and Balstrode a crippled naval veteran trying to cope with civilian life and almost-constant pain, and trying to adjust to his disability without himself becoming another outsider. The inference that by the end of the story he is also unrequitedly in love with Ellen just makes the whole thing even more pulverising.
Ms Van Den Heever, incidentally, must be a big lass; it only took a relatively low pair of heels to make her as tall as Skelton and Paterson, who are both decidedly big fellas. She’s slim and good-looking, but heavens, she must be a good five foot ten, if not more! Hurrah for tall women getting to play the heroine!
So I’m pretty shattered, tonight, but it’s a good kind of shattered. And despite my disagreements with the production, I’m thrilled that more people will have been able to discover the marvel that is Stuart Skelton; and perhaps some of them, the marvel that is Britten’s music, too.
I hope too that ENO had the good sense to record this for Dvd…