A remarkable work that began Benjamin Britten's opera-writing career, "Peter Grimes" is an enthralling, sometimes challenging work that requires passionate singing of the first order to make it resonate. Fortunately Colin Davis, in his second recording of this work, leads the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and a superb cast to bring this masterwork to vivid life in this three-disc set. Tenor Glenn Winslade proves to be a striking choice for the title role of the conflicted fisherman with a clear and strong voice, operatically dramatic and supple as he maneuvers around some sinuous phrasing. He is not a dominant presence like the role's originator Peter Pears, but Winslade is often a moving in conveying the troubled nature of his character. He passionately expresses his aspirations in Act I's "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" and handles the much anticipated mad scene at the end with supreme dexterity. Soprano Janice Watson has a beautiful voice and creates a strong portrayal of Ellen, the widowed schoolteacher, particularly splendid in the Act I inquest scene with "Let her among you without fault", the Act II confrontation with Peter on "Now that the daylight fills the sky", and the poignant "Embroidery in childhood" in Act III. Baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore makes a burly and sympathetic Balstrode, as he peaks with Act I's "We live and let live".
The smaller roles are well interpreted including alto Jill Grove's self-righteous Auntie and the two nieces, voiced by sopranos Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan, team up well with Grove and Watson in their second-act quartet, which leads very effectively into Davis' devastating account of the passacaglia. Baritone James Rutherford makes his moments count as a suitably pompous Swallow, and tenor Ryland Davies is a suitably feisty Reverend Adams. They team nicely on the Act II closer, "The whole affair gives Borough talk". However, I feel the standouts of this large ensemble cast are mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs. Sedley and two of my favorite singers, baritone Nathan Gunn as Ned Keene, described as "apothecary and quack" and rising baritone Jonathan Lemalu, who leaves a vivid impression as Hobson the carrier. Davis provides superlative musical direction throughout evoking the stormy seas with power and articulation - all of the big choral scenes, the four sea interludes and passacaglia, and Act I's thundering conclusion. The chorus, over 200 voices strong, gives a powerful performance singing with the same commitment that the lead singers do with sharp diction and dramatic context. The "Now is gossip put on trial" march has real menace, and the hysterical Act III cries are appropriately terrifying. The themes of Britten's opera have to do with passion, guilt and self-doubt, universal traits that are felt more intensely by those profoundly in conflict with themselves. That's what gives this opera its power. While there are a number of recordings of this opera on the market, it will be hard to surpass this one in terms of the overall virtuosity of the performance.