A friend, who knows more about theatre than I ever will, praised the new production of Peter Grimes at the ENO. “It’s what opera direction has been leading up to for 30 years”. These days opera directors are condemned on autopilot, as if hate were a badge of honour. Of course there are some seriously moronic productions (not all avant garde or German). But operas are staged so their meaning can be enhanced. As stagecraft, this new production, by David Alden, vividly elucidates the essence of Peter Grimes.
The set is spartan. Immediately this is metaphor. Large flat planes cross the stage, like huge panels of weathered timber. Life in fishing villages is tough, the locals exposed to the elements like their surroundings. The bleakness on stage suggests at once the landscape and the desolation of those who live in it. Yet bleached timber can be beautiful. Its texture is irregular and it takes on myriad hues as the light changes.
Wide open spaces are important to the meaning of this opera. Britten contrasts the wild, unpredictability of storms with the ordered ritual in church, the endless horizons with cramped, closed spaces. Thus the courthouse, where Peter is not convicted, is fairly open plan, the crowd penned into a corner, writhing. The pub, The Boar, (a savage animal) is evoked simply by a row of solid over stuffed sofas : immobility and solidity, the illusion of comfort. Yet the storm rages, roads are flooded. The flat planes that enclose the pub careen dangerously as if at any moment they might be blown in by the gale. Auntie doesn’t believe in shutters. Lightning flashes suddenly. No wonder the nieces are scared.
Auntie’s nieces are often depicted as hardened prostitutes, for they are part of the pub's attractions. Although they're obviously complicit, there is ambiguity about their role. Hence their strange twin like behaviour. Little about them is straightforward. Depicting them as very young schoolgirls makes a lot of sense, though, for the suggestion is that they are, like the apprentices, Britten’s quintessential innocents, doomed to be corrupted.
“Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved that their bodies go for cash?” cries Boles, when he hears a new apprentice has casually been “purchased”. He has a point. In some productions, the preacher is ridiculed like a comic book nazi or buffoon. Here, though, he’s not unsympathetic. When Swallow tries to “buy” one of the girls, there’s a connection between the nieces and the boys, often lost in less subtle productions.
Alden further reinforces the similarity between the girls and boys by having the nieces smack their toy dolls when they’re upset, as children do when they can’t deal with their own feelings. John the new apprentice also acts like an abused child, rolling up in a foetal position, too terrified to speak.
Then when Peter faces his dilemma in Act 3, Alden doesn’t have him do a wild “mad scene”. Instead, Peter seems to crumble inwards, curled up and rocking himself mindless, just like John did, just like a trapped, tortured animal. It’s incredibly painful to watch, as violent anguish at least is “adult”. The implication is that Peter, too, was an abused child, who treats his boys harshly because he knows no other way to interact. Their vulnerability reminds him of something he’d prefer not to deal with, so he lashes out. Significantly, the only time we see solid looking “brick walls” in this set is in Peter’s hut, where the walls tower like a prison, bathed in eerie green light.
This isn’t a bad rationale for Grimes's behaviour. He is brutal, but it’s directed inward, too. He asks Ellen,“Wrong to try, wrong to live, right to die”. It’s a warning, a sudden but revealing flash of insight. This production implies that Peter’s whole life has been one long, slow suicide, his attempts to better himself a cry for help. When he does face fate, it’s with curiously dignified resignation, as if he’s rehearsed the moment since he, too, perhaps was a boy from the workhouse.
Please see part 2 of this which deals with the more controversial aspects - sex, politics etc. In fact I think it says even more about the staging, the opera and Britten, but then I'm prejudiced, I wrote it. You can find it by scrolling up or looking under the subject labels on right under Britten. Look under "stagecraft" too if you want to read analyses of the stagecraft in other operas. There's more on Britten including some off the wall stuff ! This is a seriously good production, because it brings out so many deeper levels in the opera, often missed. As my friend said, it needs to be seen again and again. And read the score before deriding this production. If it's "not what Britten intended", then someone should get Britten to rewrite the opera, and make Mrs Selby the heroine.