"Britten is a talisman at the Real", was the word doing the rounds of the theatre in recent weeks, with the double hope of repeating the undeniable successes that the works of the English composer have had in the Matabosch era, and also adding a new achievement to the list with which our coliseum continues to amaze the whole of Europe, in this year of pandemic-induced closures. That yearning has been requited: what we have is the most rounded production of a season which is at a very good level. This Peter Grimes is unmissable for any lover of opera or drama.

Allan Clayton (Peter Grimes), Clive Bayley (Swallow), actors and Chorus of the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

With this production, stage director Deborah Warner repeats the success she achieved with her award-winning Billy Budd on this stage. The libretto, by Montagu Slater and Britten himself, presents us with a protagonist with the twin facets of victim and executioner, hunter and prey. As a result, conflicting feelings, mixed emotions, empathy and rejection also dominate most of the productions. Warner, however, takes the side of the fisherman and resolves the conflict in his favour; her Grimes is first and foremost a martyr beset by the mob, struggling to avoid his inescapable fate. In Warner's expert hands, what could have been an unforgivable simplification works well as a political allegory.

Natalia Labourdette and Rocío Pérez (nieces), Jacques Imbrailo (Ned Keene), actors and chorus
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Through careful direction of the acting, Grimes emerges as an icon of the outcast, of solitude as a way of existence. A powerful, highly polished stage language envelops the action. Warner shows her talent in making beauty from desolation and the grotesque as raw materials. The brief, disquieting apparitions of the dreamlike, weightless, aquamarine-blue world combine with the tawdry bustle of the coastal village and show us that, in the right hands, poetry can also happen in dingy slums.

The chorus, the depersonalised, oppressive herd, Grimes's true antagonist, is articulated through anonymity. The diversity of the figures makes them unrecognisable as individuals and allows them to display collective hatred from their camouflaged safety. The specific characters who detach themselves from it have hardly any individuality; after uttering their phrases, the mass to which they belong swallows them up again. Vocally, the chorus is once more at the high quality to which we have become accustomed in recent years from the Coro Intermezzo (Coro Titular del Teatro Real), combining apparent chaos in the scenes of debauchery with the seamless unanimity of their numerous condemnations of the hapless outcast.

Allan Clayton (Peter Grimes)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Allan Clayton makes his debut in the role in this production – who would have thought it! He perfectly embodies the figure of the persecuted, the anguish of the one who barely survives each day and has been condemned as a matter of principle. There is no trace of menace or rudeness in his vocality – his forceful episodes are self-defence – and he masterfully deploys the greatest delicacy and lyrical fragility in his reflections on pain and the universe towards the end of the first act, the most memorable moment of his outstanding performance. Maria Bengtsson seems fully conscious of her role of a redeeming angel and reflects this in a clean, crystalline delivery, reinforced by a powerful but always soothing squillo. Her body language announces that her task is doomed to failure, which is yet another success of Warner's superb acting direction. Of the other characters, the tragic power of Christopher Purves' recitative as Balstrode is outstanding as he encourages Peter to disappear, as is the sensual mischief of the two nieces, played by Rocío Pérez and Natalia Labourdette. The evocative women's quartet in the second act, reminiscent of Strauss, demonstrates the impeccable quality of the female cast.

Allan Clayton (Peter Grimes) and his apprentice (Saúl Esgueva)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

From the pit, Ivor Bolton was able to create a tense atmosphere that he kept intact from the first moment to the last – it is not easy to get the whole hall to freeze in moments of silence. Dramatically, he transported us into the heart of nature in the interludes, and into the merciless entrails of fate in every scene. The orchestra once again demonstrated the excellent quality with which it astonished us in Siegfried, overcoming the difficulties of a score that impresses with the roundedness of its loud passages, but whose greatest secrets lie in its instrumental colour and rhythmic narrative.

This premiere has received a great deal of media attention for reasons that have nothing to do with artistic matters: Brexit, a suspected coronavirus outbreak and the thirst for scandal in some of the media. Moreover, on the opening night the audience was attended by more public figures than a normal season opener: it seems that the powers-that-be are becoming ever more fond of opera. But make no mistake, if this evening will be long remembered, it will be simply for what happened on stage: creativity, daring, grandeur, fine music and a deeply human dramatic sense; true opera, no less.

Translated from Spanish by David Karlin