English National Opera is back. And let’s remember, this was the season that Arts Council England did not want to happen, withdrawing ENO’s grant and attempting to banish it from its London base at the Coliseum – until saner and wiser counsels prevailed. The company could not have made a stronger case for its indispensable place on the London scene than with this pulverising revival of Benjamin Britten’s great post-war opera.
David Alden’s radical staging was first seen here in 2009, and turned the conventional idea of this opera on its head. The story of Grimes, the Suffolk fisherman, as the outsider in his community can be read in many ways, echoing Britten’s own outsider status in the 1940s as both a pacifist and gay. But instead of portraying Grimes as the wild man confronted by the sober forces of the Borough, Alden turns the inhabitants of the village into a motley collection of eccentrics and perverts, with a bewildered Grimes as their victim.
With their prancing, drinking and lechery, this inbred community spawns some truly scary characters, none more so than the joined-at-the-hip and wearing-the-same-coat pair of young nieces (Cleo Lee-McGowan and Ava Dodd) who service the Boar pub presided over by eerie landlady Auntie (Christine Rice). The jumpy, seedy quack (Alex Otterburn), nosey Mrs Sedley (Anne-Marie Owens) rector Horace Adams (Ronald Samm) and bumptious Bob Boles (John Findon) are all precisely and dangerously drawn.
Even the lawyer Swallow (Clive Bayley, with impeccable diction) sports a skirt as the village erupts in the phantasmagorical opening scene of Act Three, the piercing triangular set of Paul Steinberg hemming in the action on the street as the massed chorus (director James Henshaw) work up to their screaming accusatory cries of “Peter Grimes!”.
At the mercy of this clutch of manic eccentrics is Grimes himself, portrayed by Gwyn Hughes Jones as an agonised figure unable to cope with demands of his life, his voice touching, heartfelt and faltering with emotion, his apprentice (Rudy Williams) disturbed and withdrawn. His only support comes from Elizabeth Llewellyn as the widow Ellen Orford, more straightforward in her eloquence but powerfully intense.
When it was new, this production was conducted with razor-sharp intensity by Edward Gardner; now under music director Martyn Brabbins, it has a warmer, more expressive breadth. Occasionally the tension slips, but the famous sea interludes glow as the source of post-war British music.
This is a magnificent company show in which every gesture in the action is compelling, and every bar of the music is a reproach to those who would have deprived Coliseum audiences of this show and this company.
Until Oct 11; eno.org