On a bleak and blustery autumnal evening, I set out from my home port of the Cornerhouse bar to venture westward to Salford to see the imagined Suffolk fishing village of Aldeburgh and the tragic tale of fisherman Peter Grimes.
Benjamin Britten’s seaside story was being staged by Opera North as part of the Festival of Britten celebration of the centenary of the great composer’ s birth. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Death in Venice were being performed on the consecutive following evenings to complete the cycle. That’s a lot of opera and I do know people who are going to all three. Coming from a sea-faring family (grandfathers, father, brother, hell, even my mother was in the navy), my interest was sparked by the distinctly salty Peter Grimes.
Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Peter Grimes for Opera North in 2006 was hailed as “definitive” and here she gathered together nearly all the participants for the revival. The stage design by Anthony Ward was a minimal horizontal land/sea scape diorama, all gloomy greys and blacks of a late Rothko with only occasional warmth provided by the excellent and dramatic lighting of Paule Constable (any relation to Suffolk’s most famous son, John?). The costume was contemporary yet harked back to market town drabness of a polyester post-war past, lightened by the workaday yellow of the fishermen’s sou’westers and a flash of the red of Auntie’s (the pub landlady Yvonne Howerd) busty barmaid blouse.
The opera opens with a silent scene as the body of a semi-naked Peter Grimes (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) lies waiting to be discovered by the children of the Borough. I took it as a vision of a future to be – all it needed was Jim Morrison singing This is the end – but thankfully it was more quiet English tragedy than napalm extravaganza. The story begins with the inquest into the death of Grimes’s young apprentice, swept overboard in a storm and lost to the deep. The townsfolk of the Borough, as the village is simply known, are convinced of his guilt but Grimes declares his innocence and the death is deemed to be accidental. In rage and confusion, Grimes sings of his desire for a second chance to local school-mistress and object of his affections, Ellen Orford (Giselle Allen). It is a moment of tenderness beautifully rendered, a half-full glimpse in a half-empty tale.
As the Borough go about their weary business and drown their collective sorrows in the ‘Bear’, Grimes, with the aid of the apothecary, Ned Keene (Benedict Nelson) and Ellen acquires a new apprentice, John. The drunken and hypocritical people of the Borough cannot believe his folly and ostracise Grimes even further from the life of the village. Tragedy strikes again and in the mist of a terrible storm John is also killed. Grimes’s grief drives him to the edge of madness; he holds the dead boy aloft as if in disbelief, knowing that his fate is now sealed. The only advice he is offered is from his last remaining friend Captain Balstrode (Robert Hayward): “scuttle your boat and disappear forever” as the townsfolk, now an angry mob, search for Grimes and vengeance. As Grimes vanishes, presumed lost at sea, the Borough returns to what counts as normal life. As they mend their nets in rhythm, the sound of rope on floorboard poetically mimics the lapping waves of a calm sea.
Misplaced manliness prevents me from telling you how many times I cried during the most hauntingly beautiful performance I have ever seen. The direction, the design, the orchestra, the singing and the pure movement of the chorus of Opera North and its supporting principals pulled and heaved ho together in the most memorable experience in the name of opera I am likely to witness. On top of this, Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes ripped my heart out, made it walk the plank, shivered its timbers and nailed it to the mast. I am lost at sea for words to adequately describe his performance other than to say I feel privileged, if not blessed, to have seen it.
Review by Robert Hamilton
What: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, performed by Opera North
Where: The Lowry, Salford
When: until November 9, 2013