Review: PETER GRIMES, London Coliseum

David Alden's 2009 production still chills with eerie resonance

By: Sep. 22, 2023
Review: PETER GRIMES, London Coliseum
Review: PETER GRIMES, London Coliseum

Is Peter Grimes a victim of cancel culture? Shunned by the townspeople of The Borough, an economically deprived seaside town, paranoia grows like a malignant tumour as he is branded persona non grata. In their defence, he is responsible for the mysterious death of his apprentice. In his defence it was an accident.

David Alden’s revived 2009 production still chills with the bite of a psychological thriller, deliciously balancing that thrill with a morality as murky grey as the North Sea. Grimes like a fly in a spider’s web, a victim, but arguably of his own architecture, the cycle of violence spins ever faster around him.

Paul Steinberg’s angular set does the heavy lifting when it comes to the gloomy atmosphere. Tilted like a Dutch angle and with long distorted shadows cast by offstage light, The Third Man is an odd but fitting visual touchpoint: both are set in post-war purgatories where amorality rules unchallenged.

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Grimes playfully toys with that moral weight. His vocals are vinegar-like, filling the space with a briny kick, provoking us to ponder how guilty he is as frantic desperation takes hold. Elizabeth Llewellyn glistens, playing off Hughes Jones’ gorgeous darkness as Ellen Orford, puncturing his marauding melancholy with heartfelt humanity.

Those beautiful contrasts are accentuated by Martyn Brabbins who teases out the gentler moments in Brittan’s score. Light and dark, the Sea Interludes’ gentle delicacy glimmers through the grey like the sun slicing through a storm cloud. Grimes’ Great Bear and Pleiades has a similarly formidable poignancy. Nothing is clear cut; despite the interminable brutality there is hope.

But Peter Grimes is only as good as its wider ensemble. They are the marauding crowd baying for a barbed dose of mob justice. The ENO chorus deliver deliciously on all fronts and in full force. Rich and with seemingly infinite depth, their powerful collective vocals are electrifying, especially when running with the orchestra’s dynamic flow in the third act.

Their physicality mesmerises too. They ripple like figures in a Lowry painting in their gorgeously detailed 1940s period dress. But Alden lets fragments of their individual depravities seep through, an added twist of grim menace and cruel hypocrisy.

What of Grimes in 2023? Britten’s opera has an undeniably timeless quality. Premiering a month after VE day, its dark evisceration of Post-War Britain, slashes hard and fast. Out spills the twisted psychosis lurking beneath the bunting.

Given that World War Two remains a lynchpin in the British cultural consciousness, Peter Grimes still cuts deep. But its surgical examination of group think gives the opera a contemporary prescience in the age of cancellation: social media might have exacerabted the mob mentality, but it has always existed. 

Peter Grimes plays at the London Coliseum until 11 October

Photo Credit: Tom Bowles

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