"Too much sex and politics" is the usual rallying cry of those who don't like opera staging. But sometimes sex and politics are part of what the composer wanted.
There is sex in Peter Grimes, and politics too. The nieces sell their prettiness for money. And why are the townsfolk so down on Peter Grimes in an age when kids from the workhouse were treated as disposable commodities? The beauty of this new Alden production at the ENO is that he doesn't go for prurience. The nieces are little girls. However coy and culpable they may be they are too young to be predators. "Why should we be ashamed ? We comfort men from ugliness".
There's no escaping the fact that Benjamin Britten had a thing for pre-pubescent boys. David Hemmings and Scherchen junior were adamant that there was no sexual contact, and that Britten seemed more like a boy himself. Perhaps something happened to him when he was that age, fixing him forever in a fantasy world "before the fall"? It's a theme that recurs throughout his work. The apprentices become Tadzio. Is Britten grappling with his own sexuality? By modern standards, he'd probably be arrested even though, like the folks in the pub "we keep our hands to ourselves".
These days it's almost impossible to conceive of a time when homosexuality was illegal . In Britten's time even a whiff of scandal could scupper a man's career. Yet Britten never denied his orientation, which was in itself an act of courage. So Peter Grimes can be read fairly clearly as support for privacy and respect in a climate of malicious gossip. Maybe that's why Auntie looks butch ? After all, the neices are careful not to fool around til she's out of sight, another tiny detail that throws the usual assumption that the Boar is a brothel. In early 19th century Suffolk ? Perhaps implausible.
Britten was taken from his mother aged 13 and sent to boarding school where he was miserable. School was a posh kind of workhouse where boys were sent for their own good, possibly to be brutalized. Ellen and even Auntie are substitute mothers. What attracts Peter to Ellen is that she represents the nurturing he never had, even though he keeps his hut neat and orderly. Ellen's fallen middle class, so she can look pretty. Auntie's got up mannish, which doesn't necessarily mean she's a butch movie lesbian. She's a single woman running a business in a tough world.
Alden divides the men and the women of the parish when they march out of church. A barrier runs diagonally across the stage, men down one side, women down the other. Yet in real life it's not so clearcut. Auntie and Ellen do men's work, Peter would perhaps be less brutish if he knew how to. When the women talk about their lives, they form a knot, dragging Mrs Sedley in despite her resistance. She, too, was a woman once though she's shrivelled up now with meanness.
A very interesting detail is the way the nieces change after they're propositioned by Swallow. One of them wears a sailor suit, the other a kind of army drab. For the first time, they're different, playing at being adult. But the military is male dominated. What does it mean? The beauty of images liken this is that they are meant to stimulate thought, around and beyond what's immediately grasped. That's what good direction does.
Alden's crowd scenes are brilliantly choreographed. The townsfolk move in formation, like a single unit. Alden has them making hand gestures, upwards and down, so the effect is multi-dimensional, constantly in motion - like a shoal of fish. Because their costumes are drab, the whiteness of their hands and faces catches the light, like the glint of fish, writhing in a net. It's beautifully subtle, for throughout the text, there are references to "glitter", the "glitter of waves" and so on. This also underlines the musical phrases, short cascading flurries that sparkle against longer sonorities.
The excellent Opera North production centred round a net on stage, for good reason. Alden turns the crowd itself into a net, for in a way, they're all as trapped as Peter Grimes, though he's the one trying to break free.
Alden has the drummer centre stage, on his own, not part of the mob, which is often the case. This intensifies the impact of the drumming. There is no way of getting round the significance of Britten's position as a conscientious objector when the rest of the country was caught up in war frenzy. There's no war in this opera, unlike its companion piece Billy Budd. Rather Britten is dealing with the impulse that drives people towards warlike behaviour, whatever the actual cause.
When the Rector and the lawyer find Peter's hut empty, they're relieved. Yet even if there's no case, Mrs Sedley is out for blood. Peter must be punished, right or wrong. So the crowd sing "Who holds himself apart.... Him who despises us We’ll destroy" Peter must be destroyed not for what happens to his boys but because he's different, doesn't go to pubs, and thinks about rising above his station. The boys are just an excuse. "Dullards build their self esteem by inventing cruelties" sings one of the lawyers.
Hence the crowd as mindless shoal, or penned in at angles on the stage. They raise their prayer books , or lift their arms in diagonal salute. The references are subtle at first, but towards the culmination out come little Union Jack flags. This will incense a lot of people, but it's definitely in line with what Britten knew at first hand. Alden's not insulting the flag : it's the mob who insult it, by using it as a cover for their selfish cruelties. Ironically, it is fear that makes Peter drop the rope when he hears the mob approach. It's in the score.
One image I still don't understand is the fleeting glimpse of Peter, back from sea, observing the crowd unseen. He's wearing an animal head. Is this a reference to primitive sacrificial rites? Or to the idea that men are animals? Or even to Birtwistle's Minotaur, who looked like a monster but was the only untainted soul? Again, that's why intelligent stagecraft is so stimulating, it makes you think. Throughout Peter Grimes runs the idea of not making quick assumptions, so this is an opportunity to put the principle to practice.
The final scene is overwhelmingly beautiful and bleak at the same time. Sea merges with sky, the horizon very distant and obscure. That's exactly what the coast around the North Sea looks like. There are few cosy harbours. If Britten wanted Middle England he'd have lived in a suburb in the Home Counties. It's also apt as a metaphor, because it shows that rigid boundaries are not the only way, in nature as in morality. We don't need detail, for where Peter Grimes has gone is beyond our ken, where we can't possibly see. The set allows the music to take precedence. It wells up like a swell on the ocean :
In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide
Flowing it fills the channel broad and wide
Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep
It rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep.