When the festival programme was announced I expressed some scepticism about the merits of another performance of this opera, given frequently in the Britten centenary year, though this was mitigated by the many years since the work had been seen in Scotland and the exceptional cast. I also personally wondered whether it could live up to the extraordinary experience of Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh. I was wrong to have doubted on either count. This semi-staged performance found an equivalent emotional punch. It took me in its grip almost from the first notes and held me with an intensity not often experienced in this kind of performance.
Vera Rostin Wexelsen's semi-staging is subtle, but very effective. The cast are in modern dress. The nieces as a result recalled to my mind (I thought maybe I'd seen a comment on this in a review of the Bergen performance but I now can't find it) the prostitutes of the musical London Road (set nearby in Ipswich). The variety of dress amongst the chorus of townsfolk leant extra power to their denunciations – it was all too easy to see them as a baying mob even though in practice they stayed in place in ranks in the Organ Gallery. A few key props are added – the fatal embroidered jumper, ropes, souwester for the apprentice. Mostly, though, the staging depends for its impact on the individual characterisations and interactions. In both cases these had a consistent emotional intensity. A few moments especially stand out in memory – Stuart Skelton (Grimes) a hand persistently going troubled to his temple, Erin Wall's (Ellen Orford) disturbing struggle with the apprentice as she tries to discover what he's hiding, various moments when Christopher Purves's (Balstrode) either does, or does not lay a hand in attempted comfort on Ellen's shoulder. Also worth noting was Grimes's final exit through the auditorium – a subtle hint I felt at our own potential complicity with the village in what has passed.
Alongside the strength of the semi-staging were a line up of superbly characterised vocal performances. Skelton's Grimes is certainly the most powerfully sung I've heard live but he also found the space for the soft beauty. In places, particularly in the last act, he was singing on the edge but this gave to the performance a remarkable intensity. He brought home the idea of Grimes as mentally disturbed more powerfully I think than perhaps even the fine Alan Oke at Aldeburgh – the switching of moods in the scene with the apprentice and the fear evoked in the latter by this frightening, changeable man stood out more than I can previously recall. But Skelton did not lose Grimes's vulnerability – indeed he brought out the helplessness behind the potential for quarrel and violence. Skelton was well matched by Erin Wall's Ellen. She too sang throughout with great power, beauty and feeling – but the moments that stick with me here especially are her hopeless exchange with Balstrode before the mad scene, and her single spoken “No” when Balstrode gives Grimes his final instruction which brought tears to my eyes. Christopher Purves as Balstrode stood as a figure of authority, and yet at times also helpless - he can temporarily stop Boles attacking Grimes but he can't solve his deeper problems, he can advise Grimes what he must do but there is something terribly sad about his hesitating hand near Ellen's shoulder as they leave.
The supporting roles were all very strongly taken – finding in each an individuality of character – I could see Reverend Adams (James Gilchrist) pottering off to his roses or Mrs Sedley (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) peeking out from behind her lace curtains, or the hypocritical Bob Boles (Robert Murray) making off with a niece given half a chance.
Finally, we had as the bedrock support of the whole enterprise the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, the Edvard Grieg Kor, the Choir of Collegium Musicum and students from the Royal Northern College of Music under the masterful direction of Edward Gardner, assisted by chorus master Hakon Matti Skrede. The massed choir brought a real sense of threat to moments like their assault on Ellen when she agrees to fetch the apprentice, while the repeated “Peter Grimes” cries were shattering in their power. Throughout, they had telling personality – I believed in them as the inhabitants of this town. The Bergen Philharmonic and Gardner played exceptionally – finding all the moods of the sea and the range from savage violence to beauty in the score. I have heard Gardner conduct a number of times in opera but I felt this performance went to a new level – delivered with a dramatic intensity I don't recall previously experiencing from him (or perhaps it was simply that here music and staging were in powerful harmony as they so often weren't when he was Music Director at ENO).
It was good to hear the audience react so enthusiastically – the extended applause at the end of the first act already told a story, as did the moments of silence at the very end. I am very slow to give standing ovations but when Skelton came on I was moved to do so and I stayed on my feet to cheer the whole ensemble. An exceptional Festival performance. What a pity the BBC hadn't thought to record it.