The Metropolitan Opera – Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes – An opera in a prologue and three acts [Libretto by Montagu Slater, after George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”; sung in English with Met Titles by Francis Rizzo]

Peter Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Ellen Orford – Patricia Racette
Captain Balstrode – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Auntie – Jill Grove
Two nieces – Leah Partridge & Erin Morley
Bob Boles – Greg Fedderly
Swallow – John Del Carlo
Mrs Sedley – Felicity Palmer
Reverend Horace Adams – Bernard Fitch
Ned Keene – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Hobson – Dean Peterson
Boy – Logan William Erickson
Villagers – Roger Andrews, David Asch, Kenneth Floyd, David Frye, Jason Hendrix, Mary Hughes, Robert Maher, Timothy Breese Miller, Jeffrey Mosher, Richard Pearson, Mark Persing, Mitchell Sendrowitz, Daniel Clark Smith, Lynn Taylor & Joseph Turi

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Donald Runnicles

John Doyle – Production
Scott Pask – Set designer
Ann Hould-Ward – Costume designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting design
Donald Palumbo – Chorus master
Gregory Buchalter – Stage-band conductor

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 28 February, 2008
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaThis was the first night of Metropolitan Opera’s third production of “Peter Grimes”, the work that firmly established the reputation of 32-year-old Benjamin Britten as a major composer. Donald Runnicles conducted a cast that featured the American pairing of Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford.

Britten’s inspiration for the opera can be traced back to the time of his self-imposed exile in the U.S. during World War II, when he read George Crabbe’s lengthy poem, “The Borough”, which, in epistolary form, tells of the lives of the inhabitants of an English fishing village based on Aldeburgh, Crabbe’s (and later Britten’s) home town. The apprentice-abusing fisherman Peter Grimes is a minor character in the poem, but his story appealed to Britten – and tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s life-partner – as the subject he had been seeking for an opera that Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had offered to commission. Britten and Pears worked on the scenario during a perilous wartime crossing back to England in 1942, and then engaged Montagu Slater to write the libretto. Slater made Grimes more sympathetic than Crabbe’s sadistic villain, portraying him as a victim of ostracism by the vicious villagers, a misfit who, although rough with his apprentices, is neither murderer nor pederast. Britten set about composing the score in early 1944, completing it in February of the following year.

A scene from Britten's 'Peter Grimes'. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaOwing to the war, Koussevitzky agreed to forego having the premiere in America, so the first performance was given at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on 7 June 1945, just a month after VE (Victory in Europe) Day, with Pears, of course, in the title role. The U.S. premiere came the next year at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer home), with Leonard Bernstein conducting, and productions at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera followed in 1947 and 1948, respectively. The first Met production was neither a popular nor a critical success; the New York Times critic Olin Downes found the opera unnatural and unconvincing, and doubted that “operatic history will be affected by its coming or its going” – a rather spectacular misjudgement! It was performed only a dozen times over two seasons, and then disappeared from the Met’s repertory for some eighteen years.

In January 1967, during the inaugural season of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, the Met introduced a new production of “Peter Grimes” by the team behind the 1947 Covent Garden production – director Tyrone Guthrie and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch – with Canadian tenor Jon Vickers as Grimes and Colin Davis making his Met conducting debut. The sets – the Moot Hall, “The Boar” tavern, the Borough’s main street and beach, and Grimes’s hut – portrayed a fishing-village in realistic detail, and took full advantage of the huge stage and the advanced technical capabilities of the new House that enabled rapid changes from one scene to another. Peter Davis wrote of this production in “The Times” (of London) that “the Metropolitan Opera expiated a sin of 20 years’ standing”, and the Met gave it more than 50 performances over the ensuing 31 years, with Vickers having sung the title role 38 times.

Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Sedley and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Ned Keene. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaNow, a decade after retiring the Guthrie-Moiseiwitsch production, the Met has turned for a new production of Britten’s masterpiece to a team led by director John Doyle (with all but Peter Mumford making their Met debuts). Doyle has achieved award-winning success in recent years for his innovative staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” in which the actors perform as their own orchestra, a practice that may benefit the paymaster more than the audience but which has won over a considerable popular and critical following. Doyle has brought his distinctive style to operatic productions ranging from “Carmen” and “The Gondoliers” at the Watermill to “Lucia di Lammermoor” for Scottish Opera and “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” for Los Angeles Opera (a production that also featured costumes by Hould-Ward and starred Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy MacIntyre).

Pask and Hould-Ward have prolific theatre credits on both sides of the Atlantic, and also have worked in opera. Mumford has designed lighting for operatic productions in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. and is equally active in the theatre world including Broadway. Donald Runnicles, a veteran of over fifty performances at the Met, has been music director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Opera since 1992 and next year he becomes general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin as well as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Anthony Dean Griffey as the title role and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaDespite the stellar credentials of the creative team, only the musical aspects of the production, under Runnicles’s tutelage, can unequivocally be called a success. Runnicles led the principals, chorus and orchestra through a brilliant and sensitive performance of Britten’s score, ably capturing its tensions, conflicts, humour and tenderness. The central characters of the drama – Griffey as Grimes, Racette as Ellen Orford, and English baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode – were outstanding vocally and dramatically, and the remaining principals gave fine accounts of those that populate the Borough.

The portrayal of Grimes is, of course, the most crucial element – there is no ‘correct’ characterisation, owing to the ambiguities introduced by Britten, Pears and Slater in adapting Crabbe’s poem to create the libretto. Griffey has developed a quite affecting and finely-nuanced interpretation of the character since his first Grimes in the 1996 Tanglewood production that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the American premiere there. Since then, he has sung the role at the Met (once, while serving as second cover during Philip Langridge’s run as Grimes in 1997-1998) and at Glyndebourne, Paris, Santa Fe and the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan.

Griffey’s Grimes is far removed from Crabbe’s sadistic villain, falling somewhere between the maladjusted victim of societal oppression suggested by Slater and performed by Pears, and the darker character created by Vickers. In Griffey’s portrayal, both good and evil seem rooted deep within Grimes. He comes across as truthful in his testimony in the ‘Prologue’, and sincere in his aspirations, however unrealistic, for a happier future, expressed both to Ellen and in his sweetly-sung aria ‘In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home’. He realises that he is incapable of fitting into the life of the Borough and is regretful of his inability to control his outbursts of anger and violence directed toward villagers, apprentices, and even Ellen – behaviour that surely reflects more than a reaction to the hostility of the townsfolk. His striking of Ellen in the opera’s pivotal scene was a sudden, shocking departure from his prior demeanour, which added powerfully to its emotional impact.

There is a thrilling edge to Griffey’s voice, both in ethereal and contemplative arias – ‘What harbour shelters peace?’ and ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ – and in more powerfully dramatic passages, such as when he breaks up the round ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ in Act One, and his invocation ‘God have mercy upon me!’ in Act Two. In the ‘mad scene’ in the final Act, he combined all of these elements and more in a brilliantly sung tour de force. Griffey has made a career speciality of singing in the English language, and that expertise served well here, with every word being clear and lucid.

Racette gave a solid performance as Ellen Orford, a role she had sung three times opposite Philip Langridge at the end of the final run of the Guthrie-Moiseiwitsch production. The warmth of her portrayal captured Ellen’s caring nature, and the strength and accuracy of her singing provided a suitable counterweight to Griffey’s vocal line. Anthony Michaels-Moore, although he seemed too young to be a retired sea captain, made a strong Balstrode, as he tried to steer Grimes away from his tragic course, but ultimately abetted his suicidal end.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Ned Keene. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaNew Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes had an excellent Met debut as Ned Keene, cutting a handsome and charming figure and singing with a resonant baritone as he fended off the persistent Mrs Sedley, who, as brilliantly portrayed by Felicity Palmer, was the most vivid Borough denizen. Palmer’s crystal-clear voice, impeccable diction and comedic timing won laughs from the audience time and time again. All of the other principals also performed admirably. Jill Grove as ‘Auntie’, proprietor of “The Boar”, and Leah Partridge (in her Met debut) and Erin Morley as her ‘nieces’, made both comedic and dramatic contributions to the proceedings. John Del Carlo was excellent as the lawyer Swallow, introducing the villagers as he interrogated Grimes in the expository ‘Prologue’, and later punning on legal terminology as he sought the favours of the nieces. Rounding out the cast were Dean Peterson as the carter Hobson, Greg Fedderly as the preachy Methodist Bob Boles, Bernard Fitch as rector Horace Adams, and Logan William Erickson in the silent part of John, Grimes’s ill-fated apprentice.

Slater’s libretto and Britten’s score assign a crucial role to the chorus of villagers, who collectively are in constant tension with Grimes. At best, as when Grimes asks for help in landing his boat, they ignore him, and at worst they are all too ready to take the law into their own hands when he is suspected of abusing, or even killing, his apprentice. The Met’s chorus excelled – in prayer to escape the tide, the rollicking ‘round’ sung to calm the tense atmosphere as the storm raged outside, and the song accompanying Hobson’s drum-beat (not a Doyle interpolation) as they march off to Grimes’s hut. Their cry of “Grimes!” before the villagers set out to hunt him down in the last Act was executed with chilling precision, and their haunting off-stage repetitions of his name set the stage for Grimes’s descent into madness.

Much of the flavour of the opera comes from the orchestral ‘Sea Interludes’ – calm, storm, at dawn and by moonlight. Runnicles and the orchestra were superb in performing these and the rest of Britten’s brilliant score. Particularly noteworthy were the flutes and piccolos, whose timbres pervade the score, and the viola solo representing the plight of Grimes’s apprentice in the ‘Passacaglia’ interlude, a theme that returns (in inversion) on the same instrument at the close of Act Two after the boy’s death.

Logan William Erickson (far left) as the boy, Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaRegrettably, the production design and stage direction do not measure up to the vocal and orchestral excellence. The design is about as far removed from its realistic predecessor as can be imagined. Doyle and Pask have pointedly declined to utilise most of the Met’s enormous stage, placing all of the action far downstage in front of a huge, black wooden facade that virtually fills the proscenium (there is no curtain). Doors and windows can be opened at four levels above the stage, with performers reaching them by means of a metal structure of stairs and catwalks that remains hidden behind the wall (until the opera’s final scene). The wall is evocative of the tall, wooden ‘net shops’ that line the beach in an English seaside town – not Aldeburgh on England’s East Coast, but Hastings, East Sussex, where Scots-born Doyle makes his home.

Equally pointed is the designers’ decision not to make use of the full technical capabilities of the Met for changes of scenery. Although the facade sometimes moves slightly upstage or downstage, nearly all of the action takes place in front of it, with little being done to distinguish one scene from another. In the ‘Prologue’, the Moot Hall courtroom is suggested by placing one sea-chest atop another to create a witness box behind which Grimes stands. Swallow, acting as coroner, and the other principals he introduces, appear one by one behind doors above the stage. In later scenes, performers sit or lean on chests, but there are few other visual cues as to where the action is taking place. Even whether the villagers are indoors or out is left ambiguous – at least visually. In two scenes, walls are moved laterally from the wings toward the centre of the stage in front of the main facade, creating the physically confined space of Grimes’s hut in Act Two and suggesting the psychological confines of Grimes’s madness in Act Three. In a broader sense, the sense of psychological confinement is the principal rationale for the entire set design.

A scene from Britten's 'Peter Grimes.' ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaThe downstage location of the facade has the effect of reducing the stage area to the point where it appears that the chorus is nearly filling it – a perception reinforced by having these singers stand stock-still and almost shoulder to shoulder, even as they sing of how busily they are hanging nets and cork. This completely disregards the libretto’s stage directions that “everyday work is going on” and that the people “move about their work, folding and cleaning nets, baiting lines, mending sails”. But there are no nets, sails, ropes or other paraphernalia of the fisherman’s trade to be seen; indeed, hardly anything even suggestive of the sea. Thus in Act One, when Grimes enters after calling out for help in landing his (off-stage) boat, the libretto calls for him to take a rope from the capstan to his boat and for Balstrode and Keene to turn the capstan in order to haul the boat onto the shore. However, since there is neither rope nor capstan in sight, Grimes just remains a presence and Balstrode’s “I’ll lend a hand” becomes pointless. Other instances in which stage directions are ignored pervade the entire performance.

Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaThe principals either make their way through the standing-still villagers or appear in one of the elevated doors or windows. When the latter device is used, however, the soloists are separated physically – much as they would be in a concert rendition. This physical detachment was actually beneficial in the beautifully sung female quartet that precedes the ‘Passacaglia’, since there is no plot-driven reason for Ellen to be joining Auntie and the Nieces at this point. The downstage location of the facade also has the beneficial effect of reflecting sound forward toward the audience, adding to the impact of the opera’s choral passages.

The soloists’ costumes are quite attractive and evocative of the early 19th-century period in which the story is set. Paralleling the persistent presence of the set, there are no costume-changes for the soloists, which has the beneficial effect of making it easier for the audience to identify each character throughout the opera. The chorus is costumed uniformly in black, which matches the scenery and suggests these elements ‘as one’. A bird-feather design on some chorus costumes is meant to liken them to crows or ravens, although costume-designer Hould-Ward has acknowledged that they will be “all but invisible to the major part of the audience”. Equally imperceptible are small bits of netting, the purpose of which also would seem to be symbolic rather than practical. By way of contrast, in the Met’s previous production there were, according to designer Moiseiwitsch, “fishing nets by the mile … woven in twine thick enough to be visible to the audience”.

Anthony Michaels-Moore as Captain Balstode and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. ©2008 Ken Howard/Met OperaMumford’s lighting design is reasonably serviceable, with only a few particularly dramatic effects. The main changes in lighting intensity take place as the wall moves upstage, allowing light from above to wash over its surface, or downstage, darkening the stage. This is taken to extremes in the final scene, after Grimes has sailed away for the last time. The chorus sings the same music as in the opening of Act One, but the bleakness of that earlier scene is gone as the wall is removed completely, revealing the previously hidden catwalk structure bathed in bright light. This would make sense if Grimes were responsible for the Borough’s bleakness so that his exit would lead to brighter days, but that interpretation seems to be at odds with the libretto and score, which emphasise the sameness of the villagers’ lives even after Grimes is gone.

Happily, Mumford did not allow lighting to upstage Britten’s wonderful ‘Interludes’, being content to cast subdued colours against the wall. The most dramatic lighting effect was, not surprisingly, the furious ‘Storm’ in Act One, but another interesting effect came when, on two occasions, shadows of the upraised arms of the chorus seemed to grow against the moving wall, adding impact to the scene.

The design concept of this rather abstract production suppresses realism and emphasises the psychological elements of the drama. The means by which this is accomplished falls squarely in the realm of ‘less is more’ – a philosophy to which I do not generally subscribe. But, even on its own terms, I find the production far too static to sustain visual interest. Fortunately, the most important aspects of the opera – the orchestral, choral and vocal performances and the characterisation of the characters of the drama – were all outstanding.

  • Further performances scheduled on March 3, 7, 11, 15, 20 & 24
  • Metropolitan Opera
  • The matinee on March 15 (at 17:30 GMT) will be broadcast live over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network and transmitted in HD video to theatres world-wide

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