Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gimmicky Grimes

Griffey in Peter Grimes
(photo by Ken Howard/
Metropolitan Opera)

Peter Grimes
Composed by Benjamin Britten
Production by John Doyle
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Starring Anthony Dean Griffey, Patricia Racette, Jill Grove, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Felicity Palmer

The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Aves.
Performances February 28-March 24, 2008

If there was ever a work that showed off the Metropolitan Opera Chorus to advantage, it’s Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

A masterly exploration of alienation, the opera tells the story of a fisherman named Peter Grimes, who is viewed with a suspicion by the folks in his village (called the Borough). That suspicion has been exacerbated by the recent death of Grimes' young apprentice. The fisherman's singlemindedness in pursuit of his work makes him easy prey for the distrusting townspeople. Only the widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford and the retired sea captain Balstrode find any saving grace in Grimes - at least, until tragedy befalls his newest apprentice.

Throughout Peter Grimes, Britten composed powerful and thrilling music for the chorus, which embodies the people in this fishing village. Along with the tenor singing the title role, the chorus is a major character in Britten’s opera, and the fantastic Met choristers are more than up to the task. Under the direction of Donald Palumbo, they provide many of the strongest moments in the Met’s new production, from the tension-defusing round sung at the inn at the close of Act I to the opera’s terrifying culmination. Here, the townspeople morph into a mob, complete with bloodcurdling shrieks of “Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!”

Donald Runnicles conducts Britten’s stormy, tense, dissonant score with a forcefulness that brings the drama to sweeping climaxes time and again. Not since Sir Colin Davis conducted the opera’s famous “Four Sea Interludes” have I heard them performed with such blazing intensity of feeling, matching the surging rhythms and emotions that Britten creates throughout the work.
The cast is lead by Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes. Although possessed of a pleasing tenor voice, he never grasps the pathos or, conversely, the madness that defines one of opera’s most ambiguous protagonists. On the other hand, Patricia Racette sings beautifully as Ellen, her exquisite soprano conveying the sense of a woman desperate to find good in this fatally flawed man. As Mrs. Sedley, the village busybody, Felicity Palmer makes the most of her short, mostly comic scenes, while Anthony Michaels-Moore is a blustery Balstrode.

The less said about John Doyle’s new production, the better. A huge, drab, gray wall takes up the whole height and width of the stage, with several doors at various levels opening to reveal the singers. During the opening scene, an inquest into the death of Grimes’ apprentice, this offers a clever, shortcut way of introducing the townspeople. But the constant opening and closing of the doors quickly becomes wearying, and the result is more like an episode of TV's Laugh-In than anything that's appropriate to one of the most emotionally wrenching works in all of opera.

Amazingly, Scott Pask, who created the inventive sets for The Coast of Utopia, is responsible for this massively ugly set. (There is one side benefit to this monstrosity: For much of the opera, the singers are placed at the front of the huge Met stage. This gives the performance an immediacy that a better production would be able to exploit.)

Doyle, who made a name for himself with his gimmick of turning actors into musicians for the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, may have run out of ideas. If his next opera staging has Anna Netrebko dragging around a harp, we’ll know for sure.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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