Britten: Peter Grimes

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Arthaus
WORKS: Peter Grimes
PERFORMER: Philip Langridge, Janice Cairns, Alan Opie, Ann Howard, Susan Gorton; ENO Chorus & Orchestra/David Atherton; dir. Tim Albery (London, 1994)
Tim Albery’s Peter Grimes for ENO is one of the most dramatically truthful productions of the opera to have reached the stage. Shorn of the pictorial realism that has dominated most British representations of the work (such as Peter Hall’s 1994 Glyndebourne version) it strips the opera back to its essentials. In so doing it conveys the sense of a community ill at ease with itself set against an uncompromising natural world suggested by Hildegard Bechtler’s moody, loury designs.


Filmed in 1994, at a time when the BBC would shoot its own performance of an opera in the theatre, rather than simply screen a live relay, it allows the kind of visual detail not usually encountered in a straight broadcast – well-considered reaction shots, additional imagery for the interludes, images of flashback, and so on. And video director Barrie Gavin has really taken advantage of Jean Kalman’s atmospheric lighting, usually side-on, so that close-up images of Grimes (Philip Langridge) in the courtroom Prologue and the Act III scheming of Mrs Sedley (Susan Gorton) gain immense visual power. Albery’s suggestion that the mob is complicit in the apprentice’s death – as the arrival of the posse at the hut distracts Grimes from helping the boy down the cliff – is one of the great dramatic moments of the production and the film.

The interpretations are without a par for their time: Langridge, all staring eyes and tousled hair, gives the performance of his career as a soul tortured both inwardly and by the townsfolk; the way his mental decline in the final scene is conveyed by his voice and changing body language is gripping. Janice Cairns’s strong-willed Ellen Orford steers clear of the character’s ineffectualness, and Alan Opie’s Balstrode reveals a man wracked by conscience and a sense of justice. Although only recorded in stereo, the sound and balance are well-judged, allowing the dynamism of David Atherton’s conducting to come across in the orchestral playing.


The only thing missing is a comparable presentational quality from Arthaus (hence the less than full star-rating), which amounts to no more than the usual trailer and a brief, not wholly accurate booklet note.