Peter Grimes reviews

Peter Grimes at The Harlequin Theatre, Redhill

Simon Ames in the Surrey Mirror

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is regarded as one of the masterpieces of post-WWII opera. The libretto (by Montagu Slater) is based on a poem written in 1810 by the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. It features a sadistic fisherman accused of murdering his apprentice and the story evokes an essentially pessimistic view of humanity.

Almost 60 years on from the first performance at Sadlers Wells in June 1945, Surrey Opera created the culture of this emotionally complicated work with a high degree of professionalism in all departments to the delight of a ‘full house’ of opera buffs and supporters.

The audience were well rewarded with all-round powerful performances from an ingenious and effective set and some clever off-stage choral renderings. Music director Jonathan Butcher’s enormous enthusiasm drives a first class production that skilfully mixes the professionals with amateurs to bring out the very best for all concerned.

Top tenors Neil Allen and Philip O’Brien shared the Peter Grimes role on alternate nights; similarly, Susan Stacey and Jane Streeton ‘coxed and boxed’ as the widowed schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, whose love for Grimes is his one and only hope of redemption. Bronwen Haydock characterised the bespectacled, spooky Mrs Sedley with considerable aplomb and Tim Baldwin’s Balstrode was powerful and emphatic. Rebecca Rudge and Stephanie Bodsworth were perfect as the skittish nieces.

One member of the audience on Friday night remembered the opera’s first night in London with great clarity. Leonard Thompson, now 74 and living in Lincolnshire, played the part of the apprentice on the first night in 1945 and for the first two seasons. He watched 11-year-old George Kendrick, a pupil at Whitgift School, in Croydon, play the role that he launched for Britten 60 years ago when he was 14. “Surrey Opera were tremendous,” he said after the performance. “The shouts of ‘Grimes’ were as good as I have ever heard and young George played the part of the downtrodden apprentice with considerable promise.”

The musicians, principals, chorus and production staff have shown that high values can be achieved with good planning, preparation and sheer hard work. It was a great delight to see such a fine performance of this classic 20th century opera. ·

PETER GRIMES, Surrey Opera at The Harlequin, Redhill, Friday 18th February, 2005

An abridged review taken from The Operatalent website

Peter Grimes is a tale about a lone fisherman living in a small fishing town who suffers from the gossip of others. The story starts with the verdict of “accidental death” for a boy who dies from thirst while at sea in Grimes’ care. The coroner advises Grimes not to get another boy helper. Various members of the townsfolk appear to agree in thinking that Grimes was responsible for the boy’s death and the opera develops along these lines with anyone who helps Grimes implicitly involved in his “wayward” actions. Although Grimes, who has another boy procured for him, survives the insults and approbation of the town, he eventually persecutes himself, his mind paralleling the turbulence of a sea-storm and the yearning for a new life.

Swallow (Andrew Foan) had very clear diction in the prologue and immediately brought the audience into the story. Grimes (Neil Allen) was thoroughly in command of his singing role but at times could have used some different timbres. Ellen Orford (Jane Streeton) appeared a little quiet when in duet with Grimes but gave an excellent account along with the female voices of the two nieces and Auntie at the end of the first scene of Act Two. Auntie’s nieces (Rebecca Rudge and Stephanie Bodsworth) gave a thoroughly enjoyable performance and could have almost been twins so ideally were they matched in voice and acting.

Balstrode (Tim Baldwin) had a lovely and very lyrical voice. Mrs Sedley (Bronwen Haydock) portrayed the superior and snobbish qualities of her character with a stunningly charismatic performance that believably goaded the chorus. “Old Joe has gone fishing” sung by all of the main characters and backed by the chorus was superbly sung and acted, even if it occasionally needed some dramatic hand gestures from the conductor (Jonathan Butcher) who kept a tight ship. The orchestra played well in a largely dull acoustic, despite some occasional stray intonation in the strings.

The Surrey Opera chorus, surprisingly big at about forty-five singers - and double what I expected from firstly an amateur group and secondly from a production of such a “modern” work - was excellent. In the opening chorus, “When women gossip”, there were a couple of uneasy entries probably because this was the warm-up for people who had been at work most of the day. However, such problems were soon gone and the chorus gave a wonderful performance throughout, especially during the scene in The Boar and in the final scene.

The production always portrayed Grimes as physically and emotionally distant from the other personnel, except for the apprentice boy John (George Kendrick in the non-vocal child role) whom Grimes literally grabs and pushes around, and Ellen, who tries to get close to Grimes but is eventually rejected with a fearsome slap after becoming too concerned for the boy’s welfare. Neil Allen seemed to personify this distant and separate character of Grimes very well.

Great Modern Opera - PETER GRIMES - at The Playhouse, Sevenoaks on 24 February 2005

Gordon Bull in Words and Music, May/June 2005

Surrey Opera bravely decided to put on PG against all the odds of filling a provincial house with a great “modern” opera. Britten is not always appreciated by the great British public, so it was rewarding to see a goodsize audience.

Theirs was a powerful production with a superb set recalling an East Coast fishing town set off by an enormous chorus excellently costumed and displaying every variety of employment relevant to such a locale. The combined effect of so many singers was at times too strong for this theatre, (although in the off-stage Morning Prayer we heard some beautifully balanced well-directed singing) and unusually even outbid the colourful and splendid orchestra which throughout the evening responded well to Britten’s characterful enhancement under Jonathan Butcher’s careful direction producing a nice sense of contrast and keeping the action moving at just the right pace.

Bringing off the sea interludes is a difficult task and it was not always possible to get the sensitivity balanced as one would like, the woodwind had a little difficulty in this respect especially in the intro to Act 2. Britten’s genius as a marine painter was not quite matched but we got the picture in the frame!

The principals were, in every instance, very well cast with quality of voice equal to their ability to enliven each stage character. I loved Balstrode’s dusky bass-baritone (Tim Baldwin) and Ellen’s clean sounding soprano (Jane Streeton) which together with Auntie’s capricious comments (Patricia Robertson) made up a rich trio of voices added to which tenor Peter (Neil Allen) himself was absolute in the part bringing a sure timbre to convey the strength of this complex fisherman so very responsible for the deaths of his young boy assistants. Was he himself, as he maintained indeed, like them a victim of “accidental circumstances”?

Now here I found a problem because the psychology implicit in this story is brought out in intercourse and soliloquy among the characters and I was almost totally unable to make out the words which were being so eloquently expressed in music. It was almost as though one was to resign oneself, as one so often does when listening to opera in unfamiliar languages, to letting the sheer joy of the sound carry one through, which of course is what I did. Nevertheless I found the whole evening’s performance powerful and fulfilling and there is no doubt that Surrey Opera deserve congratulation for again putting this on. A brave and worthy venture indeed.

It would be a shame not to mention George Kendrick for his nice litttle depiction of the poor little, abject, frightened apprentice and I especially liked Paul Chappory’s bit-part role as the rector Rev Horace Adams.

*p.s. Your editors went to see this production on the final night only to find the Playhouse in semi-darkness as a result of powercuts and it was decided with only a couple of hours to curtain-up to transfer to The Aisher Hall, Sevenoaks School, some half a mile up the road.

This turned out to be an acted concert performance as obviously the set remained at The Playhouse but the Company did miracles in transporting chorus, costumes, orchestra and singers to the new venue at such short notice.

Those of the audience, who made the journey, were rewarded with a stunning, memorable performance despite the orchestra and chorus being so powerful in such a small venue. Great theatre Surrey Opera!*

Full Throttle - Peter Grimes, Surrey Opera at Sevenoaks

Mathew Peacock in Opera Now, July/August 2005

I’ve always looked forward to my trips to see Surrey Opera - you always know what you’re going to get. The company is rather like the Ford of the opera world; solid and reliable without being a head-turner.

I also like the fact that for a small company the prgramming is ambitious, although I must admit when I saw Peter Grimes on the menu this year I wasn’t convinced they’d pull it off - professonal singers are cast in main roles but the chorus is largely amateur, pooled from local nurses, teachers and accountants etc.

Things certainly got off to a good start - Cordelia Chisholm’s set of bleak, weathered house-fronts was simple and clever, allowing the different locations to be represented through Simon Hutching’s lighting.

The sombre Victorian costumes were ideal - an army of stiff-lipped gossips in dark, menacing browns and greys.

The soloists sparkled from the start and were excellently cast - Neil Allen (Grimes), Jane Streeton (Ellen Orford), Paul Sheehan (Hobson), Andrew Macnair (Bob Bowles), Tim Baldwin (Balstrode) and Mark Oldfield (Ned Keene) rippled with confidence and all seemed entirely at one with the work. Allen’s portrayal of the troubled soul as he descends into madness was stunning, as was Streeton’s earnest and kind Orford, and their singing was captivating in its beauty, delicacy and line. Tim Baldwin, the ‘journeyman’ of opera, who only began singing at 35 and has mostly worked on the small stage, could quite easily have stolen the show - he revelled in the role.

The chorus too confounded my scepticism and produced clear, powerful set-pieces, masterminded with intelligence and style by director Ashley Dean who acquitted himself well throughout.

If only the same could have been said of the orchestra - not helped by Jonathan Butcher’s very cautious tempi, they struggled to meet the standard of those on stage and tuning and ensemble were mediocre at best.

For this production, the Ford of the English opera world was more Rolls Royce on stage and old banger in the pit.