Concert Hall, QPAC
September 20, 2018

No singer is infallible, but it’s inevitably disappointing when a star has to pull out – especially one as highly anticipated as Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton singing his acclaimed Peter Grimes. A stir ran through the audience when Brisbane Festival Artistic Director David Berthold announced after interval that Skelton wouldn’t be singing the second half of this semi-staged production of Britten’s opera, the festival’s centrepiece, and a signature role Skelton hasn’t sung in Australia since Neil Armfield’s production in Sydney in 2009. This performance has been much hyped, especially since the triumph of Skelton’s Tristan with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra last month. Even unwell, though, Skelton gave a sense in the first half of why he is – and has been for many years – the Grimes of choice, giving a nuanced, emotionally rich performance as the outcast fisherman.

Stuart Skelton and Mark Stone. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

With a libretto by Montagu Slater based on poetry from George Crabbe’s The Borough, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes depicts a closed community hostile to difference, living alongside and depending upon a mercurial sea, which in Britten’s vivid orchestral writing is a character in itself. British director Daniel Slater put the Queensland Symphony Orchestra centre-stage in this clear and effective staging (presented by Brisbane Festival, Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM, QPAC and QSO) relying on simple props (mainly rope) and a platform behind the orchestra, which – with the addition of a timber wall, two chairs and a tin locker – became Grimes’s cliff-top hut in the opera’s second half.

Riley Brooker and Stuart Skelton. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Skelton is a formidable vocal and physical presence, but he gave us a Grimes more shy dreamer than callous brute. He clutched nervously at the strap of his overalls during the Prologue’s inquest into the death of his apprentice, while later his terror at his visions was touchingly child-like. It was only in his high register that the audience might have detected anything amiss, but his performance was still utterly compelling – his quiet wail on the word “alone” as he sung of his apprentice’s “childish death” was heartbreaking and his The Great Bear and Pleiades had a mystical, dream-like quality. He had more than enough vocal power to match the raging of the orchestra’s sea, and as the storm rolled in in the first act, the townspeople gathering in fear, you could almost feel the salt spray on his face as he lifted it to the wind with an expression of ecstasy.

The cast of Peter GrimesPhoto © Stephanie Do Rozario

While Skelton walked acts two and three, they were sung from the side of the stage by British tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (who is no stranger to Grimes – his most recent turn for Opera North in 2013 was a hit). Lloyd-Roberts’ voice, of course, has a different colour and quality to Skelton’s, but he still made for an impressive Grimes with a penetrating timbre and striking emotional power. While he was in town to cover Skelton, the tenor was also mucking in as Reverend Horace Adams and he deftly switched between the two (there was only one moment, as he ascended the staircase to Grimes’s hut, where he awkwardly had to both move as the Reverend and sing as Grimes).

While the change in Grimes was inevitably a disruption, a strong cast meant this was still a satisfying performance. British soprano Sally Matthews brought a shimmering tone to Ellen Orford, darkening with grief in her Embroidery in childhood as she realises Grimes can’t be saved, while British baritone Mark Stone was a firm yet empathetic Balstrode, his voice rich with emotion in the final act.

Sally Matthews. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

There was plenty of Australian talent on show as well. Mezzo-soprano Hayley Sugars was a tough Auntie, though slightly underpowered at times, while sopranos Katie Stenzel and Natalie Christie Peluso brought character and energy to her ‘nieces’. Bradley Daley was a highlight as Methodist preacher Bob Boles, his tenor ringing out clearly in both his drunken lechery and self-righteous condemnation, as was Michael Honeyman as a lively Ned Keene. Andrew Collis brought an authoritative bass-baritone to the lawyer Swallow, while bass Jud Arthur was a gruff Hobson and mezzo Jacqueline Dark was a delight as the laudanum addicted busybody Mrs Sedley. Riley Brooker gave an effective performance in the silent role of Grimes’ traumatised apprentice John, while John McNeill was a comic Dr Crabbe.

Jacqueline Dark and Michael Honeyman Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted here by Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, brought Britten’s score to life with colour and energy. The biting brass – and their bell-like peeling in the opening of the second Sea Interlude – were a highlight, as was Yoko Okayasu’s viola solo in the Passacaglia. The balance was slightly uneven, however, and there were several times when the orchestra’s turbulent music engulfed the singers (this was particularly noticeable during the Prologue, when the chorus was positioned far back in the choir stalls).

The townspeople are almost as elemental a force as the sea in Peter Grimes, and the chorus acquitted themselves marvellously, confidently handling Britten’s complex writing. The balance problems were largely ameliorated as the mass of townspeople surged forward to surround the orchestra and their climactic cries of “Peter Grimes” – delivered from the front of the stage, brandishing flaming torches and a noose-bound Grimes effigy – were terrifyingly potent.

Obvious drawbacks aside, this was a moving performance – though perhaps not quite the festival centrepiece it might have been in other circumstances. A spokesperson for Brisbane Festival has said Skelton is confident he will sing the role in Saturday’s performance. Otherwise Australian audiences may have to wait to hear his Grimes in concert performances with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra next year.

Peter Grimes is at QPAC as part of the Brisbane Festival until September 22