Opera, said Edinburgh Festival director Fergus Linehan, should take a central part of this 70th anniversary Festival, as opera was at the centre of the first Festival in 1947. Since it was composed just before the first Festival in 1945, it is perhaps particularly appropriate that Peter Grimes, one of Benjamin Britten’s greatest operas, is one of the nine operas featured this year. It is also very helpful that Edward Gardner, the conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, had already staged a concert performance of Peter Grimes in Norway recently, with Stuart Skelton, perhaps the leading interpreter of Grimes in the opera world at present, in the leading role.
Tonight’s performance in the Usher Hall is in concert form, yet is very effectively stage directed by Vera Rostin Wexelsen. The singers, superbly led by Skelton, all act their parts beautifully, giving dramatic meaning to what is a highly dramatic opera, more successfully, indeed, than in many staged productions. The meaning and poetry of the opera are also reinforced by the surtitles projected above the stage, although the opera is sung in English. There are, of course, major themes in Grimes—class, religious hypocrisy, child abuse—and these all continue to come out clearly in this format.
Skelton gives a superb performance as the troubled fisherman, and in a coup de théâtre, symbolically takes his own life by walking off the stage into the stalls at the Usher Hall. He is ably supported by Erin Wall, as Ellen Orford, and Christopher Purves as Captain Balstrode. Susan Bickley is a fine Auntie, landlady of the pub, and her nieces, Hanna Husáhr and Vibeke Kristensen, sing and act their parts well. All the other principals are excellent too, and the cameo role of Grimes’ apprentice, John (Samuel Winter), the vulnerable boy with his long, curly blond hair, steals the hearts of the Usher Hall audience.
The singers are wonderfully backed by the chorus, who are crucial to Grimes, and The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is brilliantly conducted by the dynamic Gardner, who sings every word along with the chorus.
At the end of the opera, the Usher Hall responds with a great roar of approval and a standing ovation. Until Peter Grimes, many thought that Die Walküre, performed on the second day of the Festival, would be its operatic highlight. However, after Peter Grimes tonight, no one can be so sure. What they both show is that great opera can be performed in concert form with no loss of drama or meaning. That is surely a lesson Fergus Linehan can carry forward to future festivals.