Peter Grimes, at The Royal Festival HallOne Stop Arts magazine
During the summer of 1941 Benjamin Britten picked up a copy of the weekly BBC Magazine The Listenerwhilst in California. Inside was an E.M. Forster essay on George Crabbe, a poet who in 1810 had written The Borough in which he outlined the various characters, sometimes quite brutally, of a small fishing town. Crabbe was from Aldeburgh, the same part of the country as Britten grew up and knew intimately, and upon reading the words the composer felt a longing for the landscape of his roots and instantly felt an opera lay within one of Crabbe's characters. Peter Grimes, what would become one of the very few British operas to reach a world stage, was first imagined. The London Philharmonic Orchestra have brought it to the Royal Festival Hall in a semi-staged production as a key component of the South Bank Centre's celebration of Britten's centenary celebrations.
The phrase 'semi-staged' may sound off-putting for an art form which like no other can accommodate enormous sets, costumes and vision. It may also seem inadequate for an opera which has recently been performed in Aldeburgh on a stage formed of fishing boats on the sand which Britten walked daily and in front of the waves which were the source of so much inspiration to the work. But Peter Grimes, the most intimate, intense and English of operas (it could be considered an antecedent to the 1950s 'kitchen sink drama' movement in film) is one that can be stripped back to the bear bones and still drive a powerful stake into the heart of the audience.
The brilliant but subtle use of the chorus by the director Daniel Slater gave the convincing impression that the thirty or so in their number really were the massed and judgemental crowds of the Borough. Uniformly acting in a crowd mentality – whether blindly following the words in their bibles, drunkenly dancing in the pub or marching upon Grimes' hut with burning torches – the sense of overwhelming force of the mass against the soul of the individual was profound.
The set itself was sparse, but carefully considered by designer Alex Doidge-Green. Rope was the only prop, though intelligently deployed as signifier of Grimes' sole connection to the town and his livelihood from it. When the rope was tethered, either knotted across the stage to posts or coiled up in his arms, a semblance of Grimes' determination and control was clear. When the rope was let free, such as when it shot off-stage following Grimes' apprentice tumbling over the cliff and into the sea below, Grimes' was also lost and powerless.
Of the performers Stuart Skelton as Grimes, a role he is familiar with and will be reprising at the English National Opera next March, stood out. His was a profoundly rich channelling of the character but also portraying the despair, loneliness and sense of being unwelcome in the only place you feel is home which Britten folded into his rendering of Grimes
The London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Vladimir Jurowski, filled the hall with a perfectly balanced performance. When they had the chance to take centre stage from the singers, during the four Sea Interludes – studies of the Suffolk seascape as psychologically powerful as any of Constable's renderings of the sky above – the depth of emotion, intensity and force Britten could deploy across the whole orchestra was rich.
Though being an opera deeply rooted in a particular locale and talking to an immediate post-war British public, the core strength of the work is the timelessness and universality of the individual struggle to find a place and way for oneself against the endless force of attacking tides. This revisiting of it - sparse, fresh and perfectly balanced – was a memorable rendition.