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Goodness Does not Undo Peter Grimes

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for contributing to ionarts again with this review of the Washington National Opera's "Peter Grimes".

My impressions of the debut of the Washington National Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on March 21st deserve context: I date my acquaintance with the opera to the early 1970s when I had the privilege of seeing Jon Vickers perform the title role twice at the Metropolitan Opera. His performance provided one of the greatest theatrical/dramatic/operatic experiences that I have ever had.

This was for two reasons. Peter Grimes is great art, and it was given a great performance. What are the standards for this judgment? In a 1981 interview, Vickers gave them himself. He said that “Great art wrestles with the timeless, it wrestles with the universal, and at every point deals with the ever-present argument of what constitutes the fundamental moral law.” Peter Grimes does this, and meets Vickers’ definition of great art. Of his aim as an artist, Vickers said, “I try to touch the fundamental essences of the struggle of existence that are timeless and universal, so that I can reach through the proscenium arch and sort of gather the audience into my arms and bring them into the stage and say, ‘You feel these things with me; you feel these emotions with me. You put yourself into these situations and when you go out of here and you wrestle with those thoughts and emotions, you might go out of here a better person.’” He did that to me, and I will never forget it.

The perfect can be the enemy of the good and, for this reason, I hesitated in going to see this production of Peter Grimes. How could it possibly measure up? Well, it turned out to be—good. Not great, but certainly good, and even better than that in certain respects. First of all, Christopher Ventris sang the part beautifully. He has a lighter voice than Vickers and portrays a younger Grimes. This moved the portrayal away from something on the scale of Greek tragedy to a more human level.

The first key moment is in the solo near the end of Act I, when Grimes sings of the Great Bear and Pleiades, and asks, “Who can turn skies back and begin again?” The drama of the opera is in answering this question. Is there any recovery from the consequences of the accident that killed Grimes’ young apprentice at sea and left Grimes under a cloud of suspicion? Or will he be consumed by fate? Or is his fate his insurmountable character flaw? Or is this about all of us who wish we could begin again because of something we did or something that happened to us? All of this is gathered up in this solo. Vickers caught this shattering moment and insight into the human condition in an unforgettable way. To his great credit, Ventris also captured the moment, and so set up the rest of his performance.

It is Grimes’s relationship with Ellen Orford that gives suspense and tension to these questions. She is his only source of hope. Can her love “turn skies back,” so that Grimes can “begin again?” The good fortune of this production is to have Patricia Racette singing this role and giving it a most convincing, very moving portrayal. Every scene in which she and Ventris sang together went wonderfully well. Her warmth was effectively contrasted to the surrounding coldness.

Act II was Ventris’ strongest. He powerfully embodied the looming tragedy. His scene with his new apprentice in the hut was poignant and completely convincing in its wide, wild range of emotions from bitterness and anger to sweet hope. I expected, therefore, that he would be able to carry off the mad scene, one of the great mad scenes in opera, at the end of act III. Unfortunately, Ventris did not quite have the gravitas or sense of real anguish to sear our souls. The solo is sung a cappella, so the orchestra cannot come to the rescue if conviction flags. I reckon this was a failure in acting the role, in making us believe that he really was going mad and of tearing our hearts in two over the tragedy and sadness of it, over the terrible realization that skies cannot be turned back and we cannot begin again.

Anti-climactic as this was, it did not erase the other fine elements. Amid a uniformly good cast, special moments included the female quartet in act II, “Do we smile or do we weep?” which was sung radiantly. The chorus, crucial in this opera, was outstanding. The Washington National Opera Orchestra was fine and conductor Ilan Volkov completely on top the proceedings, moving things forward with a sense of inexorability, but also capturing the heart-wrenching lyricism that occasionally breaks through. As Captain Balstrode, Alan Held had both the voice and the dramatic presence to convey his character, the only male one with the strength to stand up to the mob on Grimes' behalf. And Myrna Paris as Mrs. Sedley did a marvelous character turn as the village busybody.

The set and costumes were as drab as could be, all browns and grays, with dusky lighting leaving us uncertain at any time as to whether it was night or day, giving special poignancy to the desire to “turn night into day.” Day never comes, however. The bleakness was a perfect foil to Britten’s magical music which holds within itself the thrilling, though unfulfilled, promise of something better, an expectancy that something might take Peter, and us, out of the clutches of his grim fate.

Director Paul Curran’s production notes led me to expect that his understanding of the story as a simple morality tale about the individual vs. society, a la Rousseau, would reduce the opera to an overt form of moralizing. However, he did not let this happen. For the most part, he allowed the force of the story to mold the movements of his characters and the crowd (chorus), who flowed naturally. It was clear from the claustrophobic court room scene in the prologue that Curran would meld the crowd into an organic unity that would move around the village and its environs like a giant ameba. The only time he overstepped was putting the crowd into marching formation before it closed on Grimes’ hut. This would have been fine for Brecht, but not for Britten. The underlining of what was so obviously taking place was gratuitous.

There was one more misstep on Curran’s part. The orchestral Sea Interludes were composed to allow for scene changes and to move the story forward in a purely orchestral way. For some reason, Curran chose to leave the curtain up and, except during the last interlude, place characters on stage. Their stage business, though minimal, was unrelated to the music and therefore distracting. It would have been much better had the stage been left dark, so we could concentrate exclusively on the Sea Interludes, which contain some of Britten’s most brilliant music. I do no to mean to carp, because Curran is part of what makes this Peter Grimes a satisfying night at the opera.

Peter Grimes will be repeated on March 23, 26, 29 (matinee) and April 1 & 4.

Photos courtesy WNO, © Karin Cooper.

Recommended Recordings:
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Britten / Pears

When you have a composer who is such a stupendous conductor, and a singer for whom the main role was created who was as good as Pears was, a recording in good sound of these forces is inevitably worth a recommendation. But even if this is a performance "as it was meant to be", that doesn't mean there isn't room for other interpretive choices.
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Davis / Vickers

An instant classic when it came out, this harrowing performance by Vickers has come under criticism because Vickers allegedly proved impervious to what Britten wanted Grimes to be and feel. While it is true that Vickers has expressed opinions that seem at odds with some of the emotional proclivities of Britten, this is still riveting stuff, no matter what Vickers thought or didn't think he was doing.
available at Amazon
Britten, Peter Grimes, Richard Hickox / Philip Langridge

This (1997 Grammy winning, for what it's worth) performance is my preferred choice because Hickox and Langridge account for unparalleled beauty and lyricism married to overwhelming (if only occasional) ferociousness.