OPERA REVIEW: Peter Grimes — Man Adrift in a Sea of Troubles

PETER GRIMES Featured Image

The Cast of Peter Grimes at the Princeton Festival. (Photo by Jessi Franko)

Since its premiere in 1945, Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s gripping tale of hardscrabble life in a 19th Suffolk coastal town, has become one of a handful of modern operas to be embraced and regularly programmed in major theaters; though it came fairly early in Britten’s career, it may be his most famous work.

I agree wholeheartedly about its quality — Grimes is a towering achievement — and yet, my first reaction on hearing it again is how very odd it is.

Consider, for example, the genre. Is it tragedy? Slice-of-life drama? Social satire? A rumination on the implacable forces of nature? I’d say it’s all of these and more. And what about the protagonist, Peter Grimes himself? A moody and uncommunicative fisherman, two young male apprentices die while in his charge, though his culpability (legal and moral) remains an open question.

Of course, this only feeds the local denizens’ appetite for gossip, not that they have much room for censoriousness, between the drunkards and drug addicts, the prostitutes, and the know-it-all busybodies. (Don’t even get me started on the Methodists.)  The town even has its own local version of Miss Marple, though this one — cranky Mrs. Sedley — creates more problems than she solves.

Watching Grimes this time, I wondered what Britten and Montagu Slater, who wrote the wry and poetic (if to contemporary ears, rather arch) libretto had in mind — were they trying to celebrate a kind of English culture, or blow it up?

Britten’s score in a sense also looks both backward and forward. There is a grand romanticism to much of it, particularly notable in the orchestral writing (the four sea interludes remain the most familiar music in Grimes).  Choral passages not only establish the sense of community, but also remind us of a major British musical tradition.  Some forms, including the wonderful passacaglia, nod at the past. Yet Britten’s signature melismatic vocal writing still sounds strikingly modern.

All of which is to say that producing it is a big deal, even for a major opera company. So the Princeton Festival’s Peter Grimes, an estimable achievement by any standard, is all that much more impressive.

Particularly notable was the strength of the supporting cast — really fine across the board, with especially strong work by Casey Finnegan (as Bob Boles), Eve Gigliotti (as Auntie) and Joseph Barron (Swallow) – Finnegan and Gigliotti were as good as anyone I’ve heard in those roles.  A reduced orchestra played very well under conductor Richard Tank Yuk’s leadership, and achieved the necessary sense of size. (It helped that the Matthews Theatre is, by opera house standards, relatively intimate.)  The choral and ensemble singing was likewise well-coordinated.

Three strong  performances in the leading roles helped carry the day.  Stephen Gaertner’s darkly-colored baritone was well-suited to Balstrode, and he was a distinctive presence. Caroline Worra was a sympathetic Ellen Orford, and her crystalline lyric soprano projected well, with lovely pianissimi in the embroidery aria, though elsewhere she was a bit light-voiced.

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Alex Richardson in Peter Grimes at the Princeton Festival. (Photo by Jessi Franko)

The role of Grimes is exceptionally testing vocally and dramatically, and there are many different approaches.  Its two most famous exponents, Jon Vickers (elemental, forbidding) and Peter Pears (dry, sardonic, pointed) might be seen as virtual opposites on an interpretive continuum.  Princeton’s Grimes, Alex Richardson, has a powerful lyric tenor, well-deployed throughout.  At this point, his success is largely vocal — there were good dramatic moments, but it didn’t cohere as a fully realized character.  This may come in time, of course.

In theatrical terms, director Steven LaCosse delivered a visually compelling production on Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s stark and striking unit set, often beautifully lit by Norman Coates.

In sum, then — a significant success, a fine way to close this year’s Princeton Festival, and a promise of good things ahead.

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