I'm starting to wonder whether all the world's opera companies shouldn't start shiftily cribbing from Tokyo's New National Theatre when it comes to the running of their theatres. This is a place where the usual pre-show announcements about mobile phones and recording devices are followed by the very courteous suggestion that you refrain from leaning forward, as "this may obstruct the view of those behind you" – a warning I've wished for several times and never before heard.
The audiences are attentive and mostly inclined to stifle their coughs – or save them for fortissimo passages – and their reward, come intermission, is a selection of beautifully prepared sushi (not my cup of tea, but it looked excellent) and pastries. Profiteroles between the acts? Don't mind if I do. There were also opera glasses for rent or hire and even a selection of production photos, taken during the final dress rehearsal and printed up in time for Tokyo's avid autograph collectors to buy on opening night and bring back to stage door after the show.
The mini Britten photo exhibition was also a nice touch, as was having the restaurant's display menu signed by all the cast members. The foyer is spacious, the queues for drinks and facilities were manageable – despite what looked like a full house – and as for the theatre itself, well, I'd like to bottle that acoustic and take it with me everywhere.
But perhaps I should stop talking about the venue and say a word or fifty for the show, which, as you may or may not have picked, was Peter Grimes again, this time in Tokyo and in a production by Willy Decker. He of the infamous red-dress Traviata, which I happen to like a lot but is, I realise, not everybody's favourite. Maybe the same is true of this Grimes but on that I could scarcely comment, having, in the course of the final dress rehearsal, fallen quite shatteringly in love with it. It promptly broke my heart of course, but then I'd expect nothing less from a Grimes.
Decker has taken what should be a series of alienating tactics – a great abstract block of a set, an unrelentingly bleak colour and lighting scheme, and stylised direction which favours symbolism over realism at almost every opportunity – and moulded them into something which cuts so swiftly to the quick that it's not alienating at all. Horrifying, yes. Moving, absolutely. Not realistic and yet brutally real.
A chorus who move like a shoal of fish, hymn sheets brandished like moral manifestos; Ellen repeatedly placed on the wrong side of the curtain and scowled into conformity; Grimes forced to bear the coffin of his first apprentice throughout the Prologue; the boy's sodden jersey thrown callously from villager to laughing villager, as if we hadn't already felt the hypocrisy of Sedley's "Little care you for the 'prentice or his welfare." These are broad strokes, but they're carefully chosen and devastating in their impact, and if occasionally a touch of local colour or a comic aside is subsumed in the blackened heart of the whole, it's a small price to pay. The staging of the last moments of the opera, in which we see Ellen finally give way to Borough pressure and, spirit crushed, return to the oppressive fold, is a piece of cruel genius.
Is that enough of a love letter? I have a history of falling for Grimes productions – Neil Armfield's will never release its hold on me – and now I have another to tug at me. Our luxury cast hardly hurt either. Jonathan Summer as Balstrode, thirty years after singing the role on Sir Colin Davis's Grammy-winning recording and still a sensational interpreter of it, vocally and dramatically. Susan Gritton, our lovely Ellen Orford in Australia three years ago, continues to give gorgeous and ever more incisive voice to that role. And the tenor in my life, you know the one, is turning into his own arch-rival, insofar as every performance threatens to unseat all those preceding it – and if you've seen any of those, you know that that ought not to be possible.
Not to mention a thoroughly committed supporting cast, many of them Japanese and making what I expect are probably role débuts: this, after all, is the first British opera presented by this company. The chorus, too, deserve heaping praise. Grimes is no picnic even for an anglophone chorus, let alone those working in a foreign language, but this chorus needs no allowances made: they nail it, plain and simple. So too the Tokyo Philharmonic, under the loving and passionate care of Sir Richard Armstrong. For once the Sea Interludes aren't staged, and sure enough, this orchestra injects so much drama and so much scenic life, that staging would be superfluous anyway.
You've surely noticed by now that I am too diplomatic – or, more likely, too much of a wimp – to offer anything but positive thoughts about productions in which my tenor is involved. But maybe you've also read between the lines of that diplomacy from time to time: even a relative Pollyanna like me can't love everything, all of the time. No such evasion or glossing over in the above. It truly was wonderful and I truly did love it. And just when I thought Peter Grimes might have to give way to Parsifal as my very favourite opera, along came this one to throw me well and truly into disarray again. There are worse ways to be, I daresay.