If small-mindedness, knee-jerk reactions and mob outrage sound like particularly modern evils, consider Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Like many of the composer’s works, it’s the story of an individual alone against society: here, it is the misunderstood fisherman that gives the opera its name, driven to suicide by a village that turns on him after the deaths of two of his apprentices.

Stuart Skelton and Joshua Scott. Photo © Jess Gleeson

It’s a piece that works remarkably well in concert, as demonstrated in this semi-staged production by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Very little is needed to conjure up Britten’s insular fishing community, where every resident seems to have their ear pressed to the door, especially when you’re treated to a cast as fine and committed as this one. With minimal blocking, they bring to vivid, terrifying life this tale of persecution.

Shining brightest of all is Stuart Skelton’s Grimes, no surprises there. One of the tenor’s calling card roles, he displays a deep understanding of the nuances of the text, giving us a Grimes of power and rage. A vocally heroic performance in the tradition of Jon Vickers, he shows us a man who not only yearns for respectability but despises this desire and the people that make it necessary. Although he ran into brief trouble with some of the higher lying phrases in the second act, this was of negligible importance in the grand scheme of things. Singing with acute musical sensitivity, moving easily between violent outbursts and moments of hushed introspection, Skelton’s is a lacerating portrayal of the persecuted loner. His murmured repeats of “alone” when recounting the death of his first apprentice will stay with you long after leaving the concert hall, as will the unsettling tenderness of his Now the Great Bear and Pleiades.

Nicole Car and Joshua Scott. Photo © Jess Gleeson

Making her debut as Ellen Orford, Nicole Car brought warmth and radiance of tone to her portrayal of the compassionate widow. Fully capturing the character’s mix of certitude and doubt, the soprano was most impressive when volunteering to help collect Grimes’ new apprentice, John (Joshua Scott). A brave public declaration of faith in the fisherman, villagers’ suspicions be damned, Car powerfully established in this moment a woman of strong conviction underneath the retiring demeanour. When this faith begins to crumble, the soprano registers it fully: both body and voice become momentarily drained of life when Ellen discovers John’s bruises. Although Act Two demands greater vocal amplitude than Car is capable of at present, this was a richly detailed, affecting performance that will only deepen with time.

Rounding out the principal characters, American bass-baritone Alan Held was an ideal Balstrode, a retired skipper who although sympathetic to Grimes is ultimately unable to offer him meaningful protection. Singing with an easy power that conferred an appropriate bluffness to the character, the way in which he tells Grimes he must take his own life is all the more chilling for how matter of fact it is.

Robert Macfarlane, Christoher Richardson, Elizabeth Campbell, Jud Arthur, Michael Honeyman, Cleo Lee-McGowan and Jacqueline Porter. Photo © Jess Gleeson 

The supporting roles are all wonderfully filled, beginning with Deborah Humble’s Auntie. Every word pointed and clear, she brought her opulent mezzo instrument to a character that professes not to take sides but is nevertheless mired in the town’s suspicion and malice. In attractive voice, bass Christopher Richardson makes a favourable impression as Swallow in his limited stage time, balancing the coroner’s natural authority with a subtler unctuousness, while baritone Michael Honeyman is a suitably sly Ned Keene, demonstrating his usual facility for communication.

As the laudanum addicted Mrs Sedley, mezzo Elizabeth Campbell doesn’t go for easy laughs, smartly showing us a woman who doesn’t fully comprehend, or care to know, the damage that her meddling creates. As Bob Boles and Reverend Horace Adams respectively, tenors Robert Macarlane and John Longmuir were in fresh voice and top comic form, whilst Jud Arthur brought gravitas to the role of the carter Hobson.

Finally, sopranos Jacqueline Porter and Cleo Lee-McGowan provide fine support as the Nieces. Dramatically alert and vocally on point, they were heard to best advantage in the second act quartet, singing alongside Car and Humble. It’s an exquisite, deeply sad moment that sees four women reflect on male cruelty, in both its mundane and more serious instances.

David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Jess Gleeson

As the work’s other major character, the chorus, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs excelled themselves, singing with pinpoint diction (indeed, diction was impressive across the board, rendering the surtitles mostly unnecessary) and a ferocity of attack that culminated in the famously savage cries of “Peter Grimes”. Such intensity was met by David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, who gave a rich and wild account of the score, encompassing both its violence and tenderness. The score’s edgier moments were given their due, but the clarity and lyricism achieved by the players throughout was perhaps even more commendable. The Moonlight interlude was particularly stirring, perfectly weighted, while the evocation of the fateful storm seethed and roiled with an awesome abandon.

A magnificent evening of music.

Britten’s Peter Grimes in Concert has one more performance at the Sydney Opera House, July 27 


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