Britten's Peter Grimes at ENO

A revival of David Alden’s revelatory 2009 production raises troubling questions today

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There has been a deal of water under the bridge since David Alden’s award-winning production of Peter Grimes first blazed onto ENO’s stage in 2009. There has been Tim Albery’s audacious production ‘Grimes on the Beach’ last year for a start. Where Alden’s conception is urban, industrial and archly Expressionist, Albery’s was an ‘outdoor’ Grimes, from the literally treacherous presence of the elements to the broader brush-stroke characterisation.

There’s also been the cases of Baby P, Daniel Pelka, who was starved to death by his parents, and Jimmy Savile and an apparently endless stream of child abuse revelations. How could they not influence our view of this problematic work?

The power of Peter Grimes has always been cited as the ambiguity at the heart of its story: is he a misunderstood outsider at the mercy of a vicious crowd or a sociopath responsible for the deaths of young boys? As played here by the marvellous, and all-too-lovable Stuart Skelton, who can float a pianissimo line of heart-stopping beauty, Grimes demands our sympathy. A touch less controlled and resplendent than in 2009, he’s become a sort of Piggy from Lord of the Flies.

Alden ruthlessly excises any shred of humanity from his cast of grotesques: this Borough is a hot-bed of hypocrisy, abuse and addiction. The menace in the ENO chorus is visceral, made more disturbing by Maxine Braham’s robotic choreography: we’re confronted by a seething mass of swivel-eyed bigots dancing to their own knee-jerk reactions.

Alden’s production remains revelatory because he succeeds – almost – in balancing the evil in the individual, and that of society. In the brilliantly staged (and magically lit, by Adam Silverman) Sunday Morning scene we’re asked to compare ‘Auntie’s’ more successful and profitable version of child abuse (pimping out her two damaged nieces, the creepy Mary Bevan and Rhian Lois) to Grimes’s cack-handed project.

Ellen Orford’s naive intention to protect the apprentice John, while being complicit in endangering him, is made believable by Elza van den Heever’s poignant, youthful ardour (an auspicious debut for this young South African soprano). Caught between Grimes’s temper and Auntie’s lust, she’s never seemed so vulnerable.

But there’s a problem, and it won’t go away. There’s no ambiguity in Slater’s libretto about Grimes’s violence towards John; nor that he allowed his first apprentice to die of thirst. Grimes is a brutalised man who brutalises others. Britten lived in a world where children were regularly sent to boarding school and beaten, while thousands were evacuated into the care of strangers. But in today’s moral hierarchy, cruelty to children comes a long way above hypocrisy. The way the boy is refused a voice and dispensed with so utterly struck me anew as peculiarly chilling. Bulstrode’s (a penetrating portrait by Iain Paterson) empathy with the lonely Grimes may make the opera more interesting, but Alden’s wholesale demonisation of the whistleblowers rings a false note today.

Under Edward Gardner’s sure hand, Britten’s score has never sounded so magnificent – nor so manipulative. One cannot help but think of that tragic masterpiece Wozzeck, in so many ways an inspiration for Britten’s Grimes. Marie’s orphaned child is the last character we see on stage, the opera’s ultimate victim. In Grimes, the children are long-forgotten.

Peter Grimes runs at English National Opera from 6-23 February. We review the Arthaus Musik DVD of Grimes on the Beach in the March issue

Picture credit: Robert Workman