October 2011

Arts & Letters

Opera masterpiece

By Peter McCallum
Neil Armfield - ‘Peter Grimes’, 2009

When Opera Australia staged Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 2009 (co-produced with Western Australian Opera and Houston Grand Opera), the company already had a venerable Grimes on its books that was far from showing its age. Yet the sad human plainness of Neil Armfield’s conception of Grimes – a work that profoundly represents the isolation of the human condition – combined with Stuart Skelton’s faultless performance in the title role and strong partnership with Susan Gritton have etched this opera on the memory like few others.

Skelton not only captured the visionary transcendence and fierce strength of Grimes but embodied these in his voice as he cut through the petty gossip of the crowd with the quiet sustained top Es in ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’. Ralph Myers’ design placed the work in a drab, stifling community hall while, to the side, the unfathomable sea threatened and beckoned. The spectre of the absent sea – the source of hope and terror, nourishment and death, origin and destination – is greatly felt in this production, manifesting itself in the four orchestral interludes where conductor Mark Wigglesworth managed to conjure distilled clarity, like clear thought on the edge of the void.

—Peter McCallum

Peter McCallum
Peter McCallum is the Sydney Morning Herald’s classical music critic and is Chair of the Academic Board at the University of Sydney.

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