The anniversary circus has moved on, and some might have wondered about ENO's programming when it saved this first revival of David Alden's Peter Grimes until 2014 (perhaps that means there's a load of Strauss waiting in 2015, but I suspect not). But this is a production that needs no special pleading, no lashing to the anniversary bandwagon--no anything, in fact, beyond its own intense focus and conviction. Why, and how, I couldn't help wondering, could a company that can produce an operatic evening of such overwhelming, visceral brilliance as this also have been responsible for such a bloated, painfully untheatrical pre-Christmas turkey as brother Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus. Such flops are explained away as collateral in the battle for innovation and distinctiveness, but surely opera is not an art-form that can sustain that sort of numbers game.
But that, I suppose, is a question for another day. So back to the matter at hand, a Grimes that momentarily blew any concerns--indeed, any thoughts unrelated to the drama in question--out of one's mind. I'd missed the production's first run, as well as its 2012 Proms transfer, but had been lucky enough to catch Stuart Skelton's Grimes with the LPO in the autumn. There the rare combination of heft and beauty in the voice was what struck me primarily, along with his willingness to allow some necessary ugliness in during moments of unbearable intensity.
On stage, particularly within the cold, primal expanse of emptiness Alden gives him for his 'mad scene' here, the vocal performance is married to an entirely convincing, disturbing and heart-breaking characterization: here's a Grimes with some child-like innocence (although not innocence in the way that the blandly exonerating blurb on ENO's website might try to imply), a touching inability to negotiate village politics, and an unawareness of the need to do so. It was a subtle, intelligent portrayal, as well as being a stonkingly well sung one. (One great triumph of ENO's, incidentally, is the fact that it has made itself such a home-from-home for Skelton, while the Royal Opera seems entirely content to ignore his presence.)
But the whole cast was of a remarkably high quality. In her ENO debut, Elza van den Heever brought a welcome spinto steel to Ellen Orford, her strength and resolve making her final surrender to emotion all the more powerful. Iain Paterson turned in a beautifully subtle performance as Balstrode, smooth-sung, civilised and calmly melancholic. Felicity Palmer brought brilliant incisiveness to the meddling Mrs Sedley and Rebecca de Pont Davies lorded over her scenes as a gloriously strange Auntie (in Brigitte Reiffensthuel's costume, this was Auntie as limping, exaggerated Weimar-era cabaret MC). Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan, as the two Nieces, continued the weird, dream-like theme: matching school girls with matching rag dolls and synchronised choreography. Matthew Best (Swallow), Timothy Robinson (Revd Adams), Leigh Melrose (a spivvy Ned Keene), Michael Colvin (Bob Boles) and Matthew Treviño (impressive, in his ENO debut, as Hobson) constituted the rest of Alden's vivid, disturbing residents of the Borough.
Indeed, although on paper the eccentricities of the production (updated to the time, roughly, of the work's composition) might seem to run counter to the simplicity of the folk portrayed in the opera (and there are a couple of awkward anachronisms), the director manages to introduce enough to give an extra sense of the creepy, hallucinatory bizarre to ramp up the psychological tension, but without ever toppling over into parody. In Paul Steinberg's stark, unconsoling sets, Alden manages to create an overwhelming sense of theatrical intensity, helped by detailed, tight Personenregie and universally excellent acting.
But it would all add up to nothing without the powerful work of the ENO chorus--implacable, threatening and terrifyingly single-minded and purposeful--and the orchestra under Ed Gardner, who, shortly after his replacement was announced, seemed keen to remind us just what we'll be missing. His reading was fiercely controlled but beautifully nuanced, the tension maintained with absolute precision; and the orchestra played out of their skins. This was ENO at its best.