Royal Opera House, London
Allan Clayton, John Tomlinson, Bryn Terfel, Jacques Imbrailo, James Gilchrist, John Graham-Hall – and all under the musical direction of Mark Elder. I can’t remember a time when the Covent Garden stage was filled with such a concentration of male-voice fire-power, nor when such a thing was last used so persuasively. Deborah Warner’s magnificent production of the masterpiece which kick-started opera in Britain after the Second World War is as near perfect as we will probably ever see.
Peter Grimes is a fisherman mistrusted as an outsider by his village community: rumour has it that he’s murdered an apprentice. Benjamin Britten and his librettists said their opera’s message was one of pacifism, but their real message was a tormented plea for sexual tolerance; in 1945, being homosexual could land you in jail.
This is not a period production. Deftly aided by designer Michael Levine, Warner has set it in an impoverished, run-down fishing community such as you might find on the East Coast of England today. The updating is delicately done, but the mood in her fictional Borough is as angrily populist as left-behind communities often are.
Britten presented his characters as a lovable community, and Warner’s cast are vividly individualised. James Gilchrist makes a mincing Rector, John Graham-Hall’s Methodist minister suffers from an unchained libido, John Tomlinson’s magistrate communicates in stentorian barks, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s landlady is an archetype we all know.
When roused, however, that community becomes a mob, and the score reflects their ferocity when a second apprentice is found dead: their feral response in Warner’s production is chilling in the extreme. Two characters provide some countervailing humanity: the sea-captain Balstrode, incarnated with persuasive sweetness by Bryn Terfel; and the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, who tries to tame Grimes’s demons, sung with eloquent grace by Maria Bengtsson.
But at every moment the dramatic centre of gravity is Allan Clayton’s astonishing and heroic performance as Grimes. His character – and the music he sings – is an awkward but painfully credible amalgam of rage, visionary beauty, cruelty, and tenderness. Clayton now owns this part so completely that it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing it.
In musical terms this is a wonderful evening. The Interludes which punctuate the action are like the movements of a majestic symphony, and Elder extracts all the magic of their instrumental colour and texture. The leitmotiv of gently arpeggiated flute figurations suggesting wind and waves rings throughout, and there are many moments when Britten’s melding of disparate modes – anguished solos in the foreground, choral singing in the distance – casts a beguiling spell.
This production will be streamed from April 8.