To whom does Opera Australia's new Peter Grimes belong? The first (and obvious and correct) answer is to Benjamin Britten. His genius is the fundamental reason why all of us who have seen this show are still reeling: without a trace of hyperbole, this opera is a great opera. Another answer — just as obvious — is that it belongs to Neil Armfield. It's OK, though. He hasn't appropriated it. He holds it in equal partnership with Britten.
We can go further, though. This Peter Grimes must belong in some measure to Richard Hickox, who programmed it and who would have conducted it; and to whom, as Wanderer has pointed out, we must surely owe the casting of our beautiful Ellen Orford. It's trite but I'll say it just the same: he is there in spirit. It belongs, of course, to Opera Australia, as one of the company's finest achievements. (Such a bland term for something so rich.) It belongs to every member of the cast. It belongs to Crabbe the poet, and it belongs to Crabbe the character, written into the opera as a silent role and transformed by Armfield into an omnipresent ghost, grandfather and guardian angel.
It belongs to us, the audience. I've rarely, if ever, felt such warmth and affection in an ovation as I did on opening night. Nor have I seen so many arms outstretched to applaud, as if we wanted to reach out and embrace the extraordinary group of artists who had just torn us so wonderfully to shreds. It also belongs to me. (And to you.) Forgive me if my writing on this opera is strange; if I write too little or too much, too often or too emotionally. I've never been so affected on every level by an opera before. Opera is what I do, it's my daily bread, and I had huge and definite expectations of this Grimes — but nevertheless, it has blindsided me, as if I never saw it coming. So you might find I'm just a little bit sensitive about it.
What struck me first — and what has stayed with me very strongly — is the reality of this Peter Grimes. Yes, the vast majority of what we see on the Opera Theatre stage is some kind of attempt to simulate reality; but Grimes doesn't attempt — it just is. All the signs of a show are there — some more obvious than others — and yet it seems like no show at all. That has a lot to do with Britten, of course; and it has a lot to with Armfield's direction, Ralph Myers's living, breathing sets, and Damien Cooper's perfect lighting. You can practically smell the sea air; I swear I did at one point.
And amazingly, that reality is achieved within a framework which could have resulted in extreme unreality. The opera takes place in several locations, indoors and out, but Armfield has moved all of the action into a village hall: a space which bears a close and deliberate resemblance to Opera Australia's own rehearsal venue, the Marrickville Town Hall. Even the scene in Peter's hut is played out on that hall's own, smaller stage, brought forward to fill the opera theatre's own proscenium arch. What's the more, the whole proceedings are watched over (and sometimes participated in) by Armfield's most daring touch, the kindly Dr Crabbe: he starts the show, he changes the set during the Interludes, he even opens the curtains on Grimes's stage-cum-hut.
It could all have been so alienating, but it isn't. The hall might be Marrickville's cousin, but it also looks like every village hall, including the one you'd expect to find in the Borough circa 1945, the era in which Armfield has set his production. It makes me think of school fairs and prizegivings; it's so completely lifelike that even when the impossible happens, like Grimes dragging his boat across the front of it, there's little mental adjustment needed. Everything somehow makes sense. Including, for me, Dr Crabbe. He's already dividing people: some love him, some are ambivalent, some confused and some irritated. I, who have a tendency to fall unreservedly, love him. His presence, even at its most interventionist, seemed to me to reinforce, rather than detract from, Grimes's real existence. It was to him that Grimes's distracted utterances were directed, and when he comforted his creation — his child — or sat, drunk and depressed by that child's (both children's) fate, he seemed an on-stage surrogate for me and for all of us. Stuart Skelton's massive yet desperately fragile Peter Grimes was, at some level, a boy who needed a hug, and there, thank God, was Dr Crabbe to hold him, even if he didn't seem to feel it.
So, to Stuart. He has come to us with so many expectations trailing behind (or ahead of) him. Not just the expectations of any tenor taking on such a significant and taxing role, but the expectations that come with a singer whose last attempt at that role had London reviewers comparing him favourably with Vickers, Langridge and Pears. It's as if we'd been sent a Mimi who'd been called the greatest since Freni — a huge weight upon one's artistic shoulders, but what a privilege for us to behold when the comparison holds true. And for Stuart, it does. He is worthy of his starry heritage, but he is not tied to it: he makes Peter Grimes all his own, and gives the kind of performance we've probably spent most of the season dreaming of.
In both his singing and his acting, Stuart draws out unflinchingly the double nature of the character, brutal violence hand-in-hand with trembling softness. This is ambiguity at its most confronting: used not as a byword for misunderstood, but to create a character whose cruelty is as sincere as his kindness. He can soar powerfully, he can shout, he can sob; he can scale back to the sweetest, most lyrical pianissimo possible; and he can move so seamlessly through this considerable range that the singing he does is as natural as speaking. Stuart Skelton, our very own, is a singer who can (aided by Britten) make time stand still, which is what he does in his "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" and again in his final scene — a mad scene which leaves even Natalie Dessay's bel canto heroines in the dust for sheer excruciating realism. I've only seen him perform it twice and yet it feels burned into my brain in his voice and in his person.
Every time I talk about Susan Gritton, I seem to call her "our beautiful Ellen Orford". It's hard not to. Beautiful is what she is, in a deep-running way which you won't forget, once you've seen her. As with Stuart, after just two performances, I feel as if Susan has been Ellen Orford for as long as I've known who Ellen Orford is. I didn't know what to expect from her — I've heard her, intermittently, on various recordings (her sublime Ottone in Villa, conducted by Hickox, stands out) but they don't convey the live experience, not one bit. There is her voice, for a start: a soft, rounded soprano, sweet as they come but with immense reserves of power. She sings in two places at once, her voice rising to the heavens and yet remaining gorgeously grounded: her Ellen is radiant, good and strong, but she is real, not some idealised angel. Against the hugeness of the crowd, of the hall, and of Peter, she is small but steadfast. In her first duet with Skelton's Peter, she establishes herself and her character as equal partner, as strong in her own, quiet away as her rough-hewn Grimes. Her Embroidery aria is both beautiful and terribly painful. When she bursts into tears, so will you.
Peter Coleman-Wright's Balstrode is something of a revelation to me. He gives this greying sea-captain a depth and soulfulness which I simply did not expect. Opinion seems to vary, depending on which review you read, as to whether Balstrode should be classes as a principal or supporting role, but in Peter's case there is no question: his Balstrode is as vital and as three-dimensional as Grimes and Ellen. The growth in his character, from wry onlooker to involved participant and maybe the only source of moral support, is exquisitely played out, and so fully developed that I suspect he seems to be onstage much more than he actually is — his presence is felt even in his absence. And I don't think I have ever heard Peter's voice sound better or more purely lovely than here. It undergoes the same transformation as his character, beginning solid and tough, but as the performance progresses it opens up' it softens, and gains in warmth. He avoids every cliché, and brings out all the heart and humour (he's very funny) in his character. I'm happy to call this the best performance I've ever seen him give.
Meanwhile, among the ranks of the definitely supporting, the support offered is superlative. Elizabeth Campbell, last seen this season (although I didn't see her) singing Amneris, shifts gears completely to become a dark and twitchy Mrs Sedley: respectable lady, crime fetishist and laudanum addict. The characterful strangeness of her voice laces her words with a healthy hint of malice, and she gives a memorable portrayal, no more overdrawn than the libretto would have her and quite striking in her "Murder most foul it is". Catherine Carby is a relatively young and lightly sung Auntie. The production doesn't underline her more dubious activities too heavily: she's mostly publican, with only a hint here and there of what goes on upstairs. She eases her way into the role, coming into her own in the women's quartet. Her relationship with Balstrode comes across well, too, although she hasn't his hidden depths. Taryn Fiebig and Lorina Gore are too delicious for words with their matching brown hair and fabulous dresses (by Tess Schofield, who deserves huge praise for all of her costumes) and their singing is just as pretty. They're such an inseparable pair, both vocally and physically (they hold hands much of the time) that I won't try to do so: as a double act, they're just what they should be. Like Auntie, their downstairs behaviour is mostly on the harmless, almost innocent side; but in their physical interactions with men (first Balstrode, then Swallow) hint at what's beneath their outward girlishness.
Two Young Artists turn in especially fine performances. Andrew Moran's sly, grinning Ned Keene is a welcome speck of comic relief among the bleakness, and his easy, lithe baritone is always a pleasure. And tenor David Corcoran, who seems to go from strength to strength with every performance, is an absolutely splendid Bob Boles — he even vomits on cue. If you didn't already know, I don't think you'd necessarily pick David as Young Artist: his performance here has all the grit and polish of a seasoned professional. Jud Arthur is in especially resplendent voice as Hobson, intoing that very first "Peter Grimes" and later showing off his percussion skills, as he beats the drum which calls the mob to action. Richard Anderson is a lean-voiced, breathy and suitably officious Swallow, disgracing himself very nicely in his dalliance with the Nieces. Kanen Breen is prim and uncharacteristically restrained (the hand of Neil?) as the Reverend Horace Adams; this kind of repertoire is just right for his voice, and he's a striking visual presence, too, so long and thin in his black cassock.
Two extremely talented actors take the two silent roles. Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke is just heart-rending as the tiny, ill-fated apprentice John. He mightn't speak, but the expressiveness of his face and gestures speaks volumes, and he depicts the child's fear very convincingly. I challenge you stay dry-eyed when he breaks down in tears at Ellen's questions. Peter Carroll's Dr Crabbe is mesmerising. Make what you like of the role itself, and its function in this production, but there's no denying the brilliance of his performance. He embodies his invented role as if it were the most inevitable role in the world, conveying Armfield's conception with such commitment that he seemed to me to slot quite naturally into the world of the opera. I never found him distracting — if anything, I sometimes forgot he was still there at his desk — and when he did take centre stage, there was always a reason, and every moment seemed keyed precisely to the music.
The chorus takes on one of its biggest challenges of the season and emerges triumphant. Whether scattered about the hall making nets, or massed at the front of the stage crying "Peter Grimes!" for all they're worth, they are as strong an ensemble as anyone could wish for. We know from last year's Billy Budd how well the men's chorus can handle Britten, and now the women prove themselves likewise impressive. And they do all of this while also faithfully recreating Borough life in all its tiny details — in the early scenes especially, you can look anywhere on the stage and see some believable business going on. There are more opportunities, too, for a solo line here and there, and these are all handled very well indeed.
With so much magic happening onstage, what good fortune to have a man in the pit who can handle it and cultivate it. I'm sure we'd all prefer Mark Wigglesworth's company début to have happened under happier circumstances, but the intelligence and poetry of his leadership are a worthy tribute to Richard Hickox. He negotiates this complex, precarious landscape (seascape) of a score with eerie grace, exploring the opera's intricacies without neglecting its monumental sweep, and evoking Borough life as perceptively as Armfield does. We heard the AOBO play the Four Sea Interludes earlier this year, in concert under Sir Richard Armstrong, and while that was an impressive performance, they're better still in context and with Wigglesworth in charge: the shifting, translucent quality which was missing from that earlier reading, he restores. The response to him, on opening night especially, was incredible: when he took a bow before the third act, I half expected a standing ovation to spring up then and there.
So much written. So much (so much) still unsaid, and much of that unsayable. There will, I fear, be more: I'm planning to attend all four remaining performances. I hope as many people as possible will also attend at least one of them. It took us almost the entire year to get here, but this is without a doubt Opera Australia's show of the year. And it's so much more than that. It's an experience — musical, theatrical, emotional, everything-al — which, if you've made it as far as this without booking a ticket, you simply must have. Nothing I've said here does it justice. It's magic and it's real life, all at once. It's a masterpiece.