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24.3.09

DCist: Peter Grimes

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From my review published today at DCist:

Washington National Opera opened its first-ever production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes on Saturday night. The house was not sold out and emptied slightly after each intermission. The operas of Britten, as analyzed in some detail by Anne Midgette in the Post, do not have the same broad appeal to listeners who prefer their opera in familiar form. This is in spite of the fact that Britten is one of the more traditionally minded opera composers of the 20th century, if you compare his operas with Berg, Messiaen, and Ligeti, for example. In fact, Grimes should be the antidote for those who dislike opera because the plots are so often absurd and sacrifice dramatic realism to musical and especially vocal excesses. Although the story is drawn from a 19th-century source, its tale of a social outcast persecuted by a closed and oppressive society was directly related to the composer's life: Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who created the role of Grimes, were not only closeted homosexuals but committed pacifists, which made life very difficult in WWII-era Great Britain.

Overseen by Britten and Pears, Montagu Slater adapted the libretto (.PDF file) from a bleak story in George Crabbe's poem The Borough, a set of 24 letters about a village in Suffolk (Letter 22 is about Peter Grimes). Britten found the story when he and Pears had fled the war to the United States, and at least part of the appeal of the Suffolk setting, which was also Britten's natal landscape, was thoughts of home. The sounds of the sea, pervading the score in six famous interludes, were part of Britten's plan from the beginning. That music is the incarnation of the mothering yet also menacing presence of the sea, which threatens literally to swallow the coastline of the borough and eventually does consume Grimes. Britten and Pears worked together to give the character of Grimes a rather different shape, a social outcast who longs for acceptance but can never find it in the hostile, gossip-governed borough. The chorus of citizens insists on their own moralizing superiority when they pass judgment on Grimes, but their hypocrisy is revealed as they commit their own sins of drinking, drug use, and sexual depravity.
DCist Goes to the Opera: Peter Grimes (DCist, March 24)

OTHER REVIEWS:
Anne Midgette, 'Grimes' Is Fiercely Embraced (Washington Post, March 23)

Tim Smith, Washington National Opera’s staging of Peter Grimes freshly relevant in the age of A.I.G. (Clef Notes, March 22)

Robert R. Reilly, Goodness Does Not Undo Peter Grimes (Ionarts, March 22)

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