Grim But Excellent Grimes at the ENO – Peter Grimes review

Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes was surprisingly a huge success when it was first performed in 1945 shortly after the end of the Second World War.

The plot, based on an early 19th century poem by George Crabbe, was depressing and the music was modern, not easy to listen to, and difficult to sing.

Yet Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater had subtly changed the emphasis of the story to reflect the mood of the time. Crabbe’s poem, entitled ‘The Borough’, told the tale of a brutish fisherman who was held responsible for the deaths of more than one apprentice.

It was the story of a loner, Peter Grimes, hounded to death by the insensitive inhabitants of his home town and Grimes himself appeared as the true villain.

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In Britten’s opera, it is the mob from the Borough who are portrayed as cruel and unfeeling, with Grimes admittedly brutish but more a man pursuing his individuality and unwilling to succumb to the pressures to conform – which was in many ways true of Britten himself.

With the world opening up and beginning to enjoy itself after years of wartime grimness and deprivation, a new and powerful opera captured the mood of the nation and transformed Britten from a much-despised conscientious objector who had spent the war years in America into a postwar British hero.

Peter Grimes has remained popular ever since and the current production is one of the best we have seen, thanks largely to a superb performance in the title role by Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones in a revival of the powerful production by David Alden first seen in 2009.

With his burly appearance, strong voice and fine acting, Jones perfectly captures the enigmatic nature of Grimes, combining self-imposed isolation and professionalism with a harsh manner towards all around him.

The ENO chorus do an excellent job portraying the insensitivity of the mob, while British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and bass-baritone Simon Bailey complete the picture as Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode, the only two people who show any sympathy for Grimes.

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With the ENO’s Music Director Martyn Brabbins conducting the orchestra to give a fine demonstration of the power of Britten’s score, it all added up to a stirring performance of the work.

I cannot help feeling, however, that its best music is heard in the Four Sea Interludes played by the orchestra unaccompanied by singers between the acts.

Britten’s evocation of the changing patterns of the sea at different times is highly effective and much easier on the ear than the demanding but relatively tuneless music he composed for the singers.

Box Office: 020 7845 9300 or (performances on various dates until 11 October; tickets from £10 to £160.)

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