Review: Peter Grimes, Brisbane Festival

Despite an ill leading man on opening night, this is a Grimes that Brisbane can be immensely proud of.
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Stuart Skelton and Mark Stone in Peter Grimes at Brisbane Festival. Image by Stephanie Do Rozario.

In the opening Act of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, a small Suffolk fishing community are lashed by a violent coastal squall. And at the opening performance of Brisbane Festival’s semi-staged concert performance of the opera, there seemed to be an uncanny case of life imitating art. In the title role, box office draw Stuart Skelton – quite possibly the most internationally lauded Australian singer of his generation, and one of the greatest ever performers of Grimes – desperately tried to weather a storm of a vocal variety, as illness eroded his usually powerful, clarion-crisp top register.

For those who came to the QPAC concert hall for the rare opportunity to hear this world-class talent on home turf, Skelton’s withdrawal from the second half of the evening will have been a huge disappointment. Appearing on stage for dramatic purposes – “walking the role,” as it’s known in the biz – Skelton cut a despondent figure, while British tenor Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts (a seasoned Grimes himself, who is regarded as one of the must-see performers of the role) sang in from the sidelines.

But as any artist knows, sometimes you must kill your darlings – another apt adage given the plot of this opera – and while Skelton’s vocal breakdown may have caused a bit of a tempest on opening night, the recovery of the performance as a whole managed to carve through these challenging headwinds to deliver a dynamic and resourceful production that suffered little from the loss of its top billing star. In fact, with Bill Haycock’s smartly devised staging, the rock-solid musicality of conductor Rory Macdonald, and a display by the Opera Queensland chorus and the QSO rich in insight and verve, this is a Grimes that Brisbane can be immensely proud of.

The piece itself may be unfamiliar to many Australian operagoers, rarely performed by the major companies on these shores – although incidentally, Skelton will be back in Australia next year to the sing the role in another concert performance, this time with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And at a glance, the narrative might not appear to hold much of any relevance to an Australian audience. Not that local bearing should be the arbiter of artistic value, but with a story rooted in the social peculiarities of a very specific slice of British coastline from a very specific late 19th-century era, much of its dramatic inertia could easily seem baffling. This isn’t helped much by Montagu Slater’s verbose libretto, which is by turns waterlogged with overwritten poeticisms or else cluttered by sequences that seem to hold little or no dramatic consequence.

And yet there are a surprising number of contemporary resonances to be dredged up from the depths of Grimes’s plot. In the wake of the death of his apprentice in suspicious circumstances, fisherman Peter Grimes becomes a local pariah, even after being acquitted of any wrongdoing. Recruiting another young apprentice, Grimes attempts to silence his accusers, only for this new ward to die in an accident. Driven mad by a mixture of shame, guilt, paranoia and an unchecked brutish aggression, his unravelling is sealed by a mob of townspeople, torches and all, who drive him to suicide.

Despite being more than 70 years old, it’s easy to see the connections this story makes to the outrage mentality that has become such a corrosive influence on social media; the ways toxic masculinity can create a blind spot for mental illness; and the hypocrisy of moral righteousness – both religious and societal – in a world innately riddled with vice. There’s also an interesting nod to #MeToo, as a fascinating subplot examines the ways women are denigrated and taken for granted, or shunned should they dare to show any social or sexual agency. The history of grand opera is a litany of abuse against women, as countless heroines over the centuries have succumbed to disease, madness, suicide or murder. In Peter Grimes, however, it is a heroine, the kindly widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford, delivered with exquisite finesse by British soprano Sally Matthews, who survives the untimely end of the central male protagonist. But all this winking and nudging at the zeitgeist could easily become irritatingly distracting, and director Daniel Slater resists the urge to anchor his storytelling to any woke issues that could overpower the work’s original essence.

And even without these contemporary touchpoints, Britten’s music alone is still more than capable of carrying this show, as fresh and inventive as when it was first penned. Described by a critic after its 1945 premiere at Sadler’s Wells in London as “white-hot poetry,” it’s hard to find a better turn of phrase to summarise the compositional accomplishment of Peter Grimes. Written when Britten was barely out of his twenties, it’s music that boasts awesome complexity and inspired restraint, but most of all, a genius-level understanding of how to balance theatrical logic with creative chutzpah and technical pragmatism.

These bountiful musical riches are certainly not squandered by the forces assembled for this Brisbane Festival performance. The calibre of singing on offer is all but flawless. Particular praise must first to made of Lloyd-Roberts, who not only managed to do Grimes justice, but also perform the part of the Reverend Horace Adams as well, with barely a flicker of stress to be seen. Mark Stone as Captain Balstrode kept the night on an even keel with his rugged baritone, matched in depth and dimension by Andrew Collis in the role of Swallow the magistrate. The collection of caricature roles – Bradley Daley as the evangelical Bob Boles, Katie Stenzel and Natalie Christie Peluso as the bawdy Nieces, and the ever-wonderful Jacqueline Dark as drug-addicted busybody Mrs Sedley – perfectly captured the variety of vocal colour needed to make Britten’s writing soar. Only Hayley Sugars as local publican Auntie lagged a little behind in the power of her projection.

At the time of publication, Skelton looked set to sing the second and final performance of this brief Brisbane Festival season. But even without his celebrity kudos, Peter Grimes, and in particular this superb production, is a work that demands to be heard. I suggest you jump in – ears first.

4 ½ stars: ★★★★☆

Brisbane Festival, Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM, Queensland Performing Arts Centre and Queensland Symphony Orchestra present
Peter Grimes
QPAC – Concert Hall
20 – 22 September 2018

Brisbane Festival
8-29 September 2018

The writer was the guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing.

Maxim Boon
About the Author
Maxim Boon is a British-born composer, producer, commentator, critic and arts writer based in Melbourne. He is the National Senior Editor and Arts and Culture Editor of The Music and formerly the Online Editor of Limelight Magazine. He is a contributor to several national and local titles including The Age, Time Out, The Guardian, Daily Review, Audrey Journal and ArtsHub.
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