A new David Alden production. I expected no stone (pebble?) to be left unturned in his stage-search for the heart of the drama and I was not 'disappointed'. There's a meticulous details in the characters, who wear themselves and their back stories in their costumes, most notably the wonderful double act of the nieces Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buick, skittering all over the stage as glazed, maturity-stunted products of years of causal abuse. Britten's idea was fairly clear - no-one's perfect, but the 'outsider' is the one that gets picked on - and Alden simply runs riot with it. Paul Steinberg's set design is fine, a shifting mix of the abstract, realist and inspired (I didn't get on with the Starbucks-a-like for Auntie's inner sanctum of the Boar but I thought that the reproduction of John Piper's designs for Death in Venice as the outside of the same in the anti-penultimate party scene where a show highlight).
Stuart Skelton's singing of Grimes is all about beauty, exemplified in an ethereal Great Bear aria but with power to spare all over the score. His acting is not quite in the same league (you can tell when he's been well-directed or not) but this is a fine Grimes altogether, a career-marker. The other principals, in rather more lurid colours of music and staging crowd this Grimes through sheer quality: Felicity Palmer's Mrs Sedley is an hilarious force of nature; Leigh Melrose's Ned Keene a spiv as high on his own product as she is; and Gerald Finely's Balstrode is the most beautifully sung characterisation I can remember on stage or on record. Amanda Roocroft is a remarkable Ellen, at once girlish and flighty, taking years off the typical characterisation of the more measured widower one might be used to, although I wanted more beauty in the sound, more of the 'silken thread' of her own set-piece Embroidery aria.
In support, the augmented chorus are on great form, a real purple patch of output, with heft and precision. There's a fair bit of abandon in the acting too, as opposed to the usual back-of-the-stage ennui that this lot can specialise in. Once again though, it's all about what's going on in the pit and what is going on in the pit is Edward Gardner. I feel that's it's still a work in progress. The real bite, purchase and ribbon in the sound that one is familiar from seasoned pit ensembles (LPO at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden Orchestra) cannot be too far away and will come with time and trust. There's no doubt however that Gardner knows exactly what he wants and how do it - when band and conductor meet in the middle it's really super.