Peter Grimes at the Royal Festival Hall review *****

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Håkon Matti Skrede (chorus master), Vera Rostin Wexelsen (stage direction)

Royal Festival Hall, 30th November 2019

Let’s not waste too much time on this. For this extraordinary evening is what happens when talented music-makers devote themselves to doing justice to a near perfect, no make that perfect, work of musical theatre.

The Bergen Philharmonic’s principal conductor Edward Gardner had already elevated Britten’s most complete opera into something special at the ENO (and the Proms) during his tenure there alongside Aussie heldentenor Stuart Skelton generally acknowledged to the best Grimes in the world today. EG’s Norwegian chums have taken The Borough to their hearts, what with fish, the sea, overcast skies, gruffness and chunky knit jumpers I guess it is no great surprise, and when they unveiled the fruits of this collaboration at the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years back the critics went mental.

As they did again after this. And they were right too. You will not hear a more powerful, dramatic, atmospheric, moving interpretation of the score. And Mr Skelton now captures utterly the ambiguity in Grimes as he bullies the apprentice (Samuel Winter), whilst just about retaining enough man-child humanity to justify Ellen Orford’s sympathy. And I doubt you will see or hear a better Ellen than Erin Wall. Swedish and Norwegian sopranos, Hanna Husahr and Vibeke Kristensen, brought a bit of Scandi glamour to the two nieces, joining a peerless Brit cast. Roderick Williams as Balstrode, Susan Bickley as Auntie, Catherine Wyn-Rodgers as Mrs Sedley, Neil Davies as Swallow, Marcus Fansworth as Ned Keene, Robert Murray as Bob Boles, James Gilchrist as the Reverend Adams and Barnaby Rea as Hobson. It doesn’t get much better in terms of matching voice to character.

Now the thing is, these semi- staged versions, here just costumes (dark blues, greens and black, with just one telling flash or red), some barrels, ropes and so on, standing in for the various Borough locations, mean everything is focussed on the music and the voices. Which partly explains just why this was so darned good. But it also means we the audience are not distracted by too much visual stimulus. Not that this is a bad thing in the best opera productions. But the absence thereof here meant that the performers could uncover all of the nuanced psychological insight that is afforded by BB’s music and Montagu Slater’s libretto. (And, to be fair George Crabbe’s richly descriptive poetry which inspired it). Which is what took this performance into a different league. Grimes’s otherness, his failure to fit in, the darkness, cruelty or worse, that torments him, the ordinariness of the villagers and their routines, the scapegoating, hypocrisy and vengeance, the landscapes. The ambivalence of people, place and purpose. The good, the bad and the ugly of humanity. This really digs in to the themes generating real drama in a way you rarely see in any theatre. music or otherwise. Setting the chorus (brilliantly assembled and marshalled by Hakon Matti Skrede) behind orchestra, with principals ranged at the front of the stage, was not the only echo of Greek tragedy.

I assume that this ensemble will set this down in a recording one day but it really needs to be heard, and seen, to be appreciated. So, if and when it appears again, do not hesitate if you have any interest at all in the work. I await Mr Gardner’s return to a London gig with the LPO with bated breath.

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