The operas of Benjamin Britten, as brilliant as they are (he is definitely on my list for Greatest Opera Composer of the 20th Century), have not been a high priority on the repertory list at Santa Fe Opera. Over the years, they had produced only three of them, not the most important ones, and only one American premiere, Owen Wingrave, in 1973. I was shocked, I have to say, to learn that this year's production of Peter Grimes (1945), probably the best opera Britten ever wrote, is a first for Santa Fe (Billy Budd, also not yet mounted in Santa Fe, is neck and neck for the title). The bleak story, drawn from George Crabbe's poem The Borough (a set of 24 letters about the village, with Letter 22 about Peter Grimes), is set in Suffolk, where Britten was born. Montagu Slater wrote the libretto, in close association with Britten and his companion, tenor Peter Pears, who created the title role. Since the work began in the early 1940s, when Britten and Pears were refugees in the United States during World War II, part of the appeal of the story for Britten, I suspect, was homesickness. He later wrote of the discovery of the Crabbe poem, "I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked." Pears also said that after discovering the Crabbe poem (in a magazine article by E. M. Forster), "Ben . . . couldn't stay in America any more."
At the center of this triumphal production at Santa Fe, which I saw on its opening night, is a stunning performance by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang this role in Paris in 2004, too. Mr. Griffey's size and vocal quality make this a hard-edged, roughneck Peter, someone whose physical strength and psychological instability are terrifying to watch. The parts that Britten wrote for Pears, like Grimes, sometimes do not translate all that well to other voices, but it fits Mr. Griffey's voice like a glove. He has resonance in all registers, with an unforced and sweet high range that he uses to great effect.
What makes this complicated and awful character tick? That unanswerable question has caused critics and historians to spill a lot of ink. Britten and Pears were outsiders at the time the work was written, scorned in Great Britain because of their outspoken pacifist views in a time of war and forced to live a secret life as a homosexual couple. That horrible alienation is certainly part of the Peter Grimes conundrum: he is a person who struggles to find his place in a society that disapproves of everything he represents. For what is Peter searching? On some level, the group of Peter Grimes, Ellen Orford, and the boy apprentice represents for Peter a "family unit," or some approximation thereof (as the chorus shouts accusingly later in the opera, "You call that a home?"). This is a basic drive, frustrated by the insidious rumor that spreads among the busybody citizens of the borough, the vicious talk that grinds at you, as Peter sings, "until the Borough hate poisons your mind." Something about Peter makes him odd, and it has to do with how two boy apprentices die under mysterious circumstances while with Peter.
Griffey is joined by another stellar cast in Santa Fe. Christine Brewer (whom I heard recently in St. Louis in another Britten opera, Gloriana) was superb as Ellen Orford, negotiating Britten's demanding and often soaring lines with expertise. After this third experience hearing her voice this year, I can say that I am now securely a fan. The beautifully crafted quartet for women's voices (Ellen, Auntie, and the two nieces, who are in unison for much of it, actually) in the second act ("Why from the gutter should we trouble at their ribaldries") and Ellen's Embroidery Aria in the third act ("Embroidery in childhood was a luxury of idleness") were exquisite. English baritone Alan Opie was also excellent as the only character, other than Ellen, who can really qualify as Grimes's friend, Captain Balstrode. Bass Kevin Langan (Swallow, the town lawyer who ultimately acquits Grimes in the prologue), bass Wilbur Pauley (the carter, Hobson), and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove (Auntie, the proprietress of the town's pub/brothel) gave great performances that combined vocal strength with good acting. The rest of the cast, while perhaps not as superlative, was certainly capable and exciting to watch. No role stood out as poorly cast, by appearance or vocal character. Only Richard Byrne, as the apothecary Ned Keene, was occasionally covered by the orchestra.
Conductor Alan Gilbert drew a first-class performance from his large orchestra (by comparison with the Mozart and Rossini I had heard earlier in the week, anyway), alternately as tender, rollicking, and brutal as the sea. This is so important because, in Peter Grimes, the orchestra is a sort of extra character. The six masterful interludes, conceived by Britten in the initial planning stages for the opera (unlike the scene-change interludes, also beautiful, added by Debussy for the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande), are crucial to how Britten tells this story. The fact that they are a narration without words is one of the things that makes this such a brilliant opera. All of the performances in the orchestra were remarkable, with no weak links. (That celesta that comes in hauntingly, after the new apprentice, John, plunges to his death, was creepy, leading us toward the muted, horrible end of the second act, when Mr. Gilbert's hands held the audience, spellbound, for several seconds of silence.) When the full might of the orchestra was joined to the whole ensemble (a large and powerful chorus masterfully prepared by Chorus Master Gregory Buchalter), the effect was riveting. In the third act, as the full cast searched angrily for Peter Grimes, they took several steps back and then threateningly charged to the stage apron and glared at us, out of breath, for a long time. I, for one, recoiled in my seat. Peter Grimes's Suffolk was not a nice place.
Craig Smith, The glory that was Grimes: Griffey superb at SF Opera (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 26)
Bernard Holland, Gentle Desert Breeze for Troubled Fisherman (New York Times, July 30)
The remaining performances of Peter Grimes at Santa Fe Opera are scheduled for July 27 and August 5, 11, and 17.