Music review: Peter Grimes

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Edinburgh International Festival: In what is evolving as the EIF’s strongest opera programme in years, Sunday’s concert performance of Britten’s 1945 masterpiece Peter Grimes, originally conceived for a recent Bergen International Festival, was yet another glorious triumph.

Usher Hall

*****

Calling it a concert performance is to underplay the outline theatrical dimension of the presentation, in which characters and chorus, dressed in a mixed array of workaday clothing, suggestive of the claustrophobic fishing community that is Britten’s “Borough,” found space aplenty to create a potent and absorbing visual spectacle.

That moment, for instance, where Ellen Orford questions Grimes’s apprentice boy outside the church, counterpointed by the pious service within, took full advantage of the Usher Hall layout, the entire chorus turning its back on Ellen (and us) to face the organist, Rector and imposing wall of organ pipes. To me, that summed up trenchantly the central theme of ostracisation.

The chorus is key, in this case a gloriously haranguing combination of Bergen’s Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm and students from Manchester’s RNCM, whose opinion, warped as it is, counts. Their visceral, antagonistic interaction with the cast and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, all under Edward Gardner’s direction, was a chilling reminder of tribal justice.

It is Grimes, suspected of serial child abuse, whose card is marked, guilty or not. Tenor Stuart Skelton wrung every ounce of torment from the role, his final exit through the audience agonising and heart-stopping. Gripping performances, too, from a solid and colourful cast, Christopher Purves’ resonating Balstrode, Erin Wall as the empathetic Ellen, the charismatic duo of Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Mrs Sedley and Susan Bickley’s Auntie, to name a few.

Underpinned by Gardner’s clear-minded vision and his orchestra’s illuminating response, this performance reaffirmed Britten’s unquestionable genius: his uncanny knack of creating the profoundest musical statements through ingenious, transparent craftsmanship.

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