by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 17, 2008.
Few operas are as rooted in one place as Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which has rumbled back to the Metropolitan Opera, in a new production by John Doyle. The title character, a dark-souled fisherman who goes mad after his apprentices die, was the invention of the poet George Crabbe, who grew up in Aldeburgh, on the eastern coast of England, in the later eighteenth century, and apparently based Grimes on a detested local character. Montagu Slater, the opera’s librettist, wove his elaboration of the tale into various Aldeburgh settings. And Britten, a resident of the same town for most of his adult life, brilliantly evoked its sights and sounds in his music—the crying of gulls, the creaking of buoys, the endless booming of the waves. The obvious way to stage “Grimes” is to re-create Aldeburgh and let Britten’s flawless score do the rest. This was the approach taken by Tyrone Guthrie, who first directed the opera at Covent Garden, in 1947, two years after the première, and who later brought a vividly detailed version to the Metropolitan Opera, in 1967. That classic production played at the Met as recently as 1998, and, while it showed its age, it remained a deeply absorbing experience: you were pulled into a kind of tragic picture postcard.
Doyle, celebrated for his recent presentations of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” on Broadway, has banished the Moot Hall, the nets, the scurrying boys, the lanterns glimmering in fog, and other familiar bits of Grimesiana. Instead, he and his set designer, Scott Pask, confront audiences with a kind of gritty abstraction of coastal life. High wooden walls dominate the stage, their surfaces weathered and sooty. Doors and windows open to disclose various townspeople, their bodies silhouetted against gray-green or sky-blue backgrounds. There are fishermen’s hats and other costumes redolent of the sea, but the garb lacks a strong sense of period; the supporting characters, so vibrantly differentiated in Slater’s words and Britten’s music, tend to blend in with the chorus. Even Grimes is sometimes hard to pick out from the mass of singers, who keep pressing forward in formation, like a black-clad, puritan army.
It’s a handsome-looking show, though it’s studiously, perhaps excessively, grim. Britten filled his score with hymns, dances, and delicious little throwaway tunes, which create a rich illusion of daily bustle; without a façade of ordinary life onstage, the explosions of violence lose their shock value. Still, “Grimes” profits from being seen without the usual quaint clutter. You come face to face with the opera’s darkest elements: not just the much analyzed psychology of Grimes, who may or may not be guilty of abusing his apprentices, but also the psychology of the crowd, which lustily passes judgment on the fisherman without having heard the evidence. And those walled sets serve as a superb sounding board for the chorus, which gave the performance of the night.
Donald Palumbo recently took over as the Met’s chorus master, and the wisdom of that choice was already apparent in the “Orfeo ed Euridice” last May. He has taken a gifted ensemble and imposed discipline and direction: fuzzy enthusiasm has given way to precise intensity. In “Grimes,” he has done wonders again. At the climax of the work, the townspeople deliver an anthem of rage that includes the line “Him who despises us we’ll destroy!” After reaching an initial fortissimo, the dynamics drop to a whisper, and the chorus repeats those words in an obsessive staccato, with the strings playing pizzicato in tandem. On opening night, it was sometimes hard to tell voices and strings apart, and that fusion of choral and orchestral sound symbolized the unanimity of hatred to which Grimes is subjected. Even scarier was the blending of bass voices and horns toward the end of the sequence—a noise like howling wind.
Anthony Dean Griffey, as Grimes, had the challenge of keeping his head above that sea of sound. A lyric tenor of unusual sensitivity, he lacks the ripping dramatic force that was the trademark of the great Jon Vickers, who sang Grimes at the Met some thirty times between 1967 and 1983. But Griffey never failed to make himself heard, and several times he seized attention not with stentorian tones but with a slender thread of lovely sound, as in the abbreviated aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” in Act I. When Grimes’s propensity toward violence kicked in, Griffey fearlessly veered to the opposite extreme, letting his voice fray into a thuggish rasp. These changes of mood happened so abruptly that some members of the audience jumped. In all, it was a convincing portrayal of a damaged and dangerous man.
Even finer was Patricia Racette’s performance as Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress who tries and fails to rescue Grimes from his anger and self-pity. This character can sometimes come off as annoyingly pure-hearted, a Julie Andrews character gone off course, but Racette teased out layers of complexity. “Ev’ry day I pray it may be so,” Ellen sings in Act II, as she tells the doomed apprentice that Grimes appears to be making a “new start.” Racette tinctured the line with pessimism and melancholy, even acid irony. Likewise, in the Act III aria “Embroidery in childhood,” she conveyed Ellen’s inner agony, the sense that by trying to save Grimes she has doomed him, all the while maintaining the neo-Baroque elegance of Britten’s vocal line.
The remainder of the cast added much human detail, even if Doyle’s staging allowed relatively little room for physical characterization. Felicity Palmer elicited some of the few laughs of the night with her pungent, sharp-elbowed incarnation of the opium- and gossip-addicted Mrs. Sedley, the one who whips the chorus into a rage. John Del Carlo exuded fatuous dignity as the lawyer Swallow. And the young New Zealander baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who has won something of an Internet following for his bare-chested outings in "Don Giovanni" and several contemporary operas, made a major Met début as Ned Keene, turning heads solely with his beautiful, room-filling voice.
Donald Runnicles, the conductor, drew grandiose, almost Wagnerian sounds from the orchestra, although I sometimes wished for sharper rhythmic edges and an extra tinge of ferocity. The Storm Interlude, in particular, suffered in comparison with an overwhelming concert performance that the London Symphony gave at Avery Fisher Hall four years ago, under Colin Davis’s direction. Still, Runnicles showed an instinctive understanding of Britten’s tempos and idiom; in particular, he conjured the wide-open, lonesome atmosphere that was partly missing from Doyle’s staging. If you couldn’t see Aldeburgh, you could certainly hear it.
Under the imaginative leadership of Peter Gelb, the Met has enjoyed a surge of attendance this season, with many performances selling out—good luck getting tickets for upcoming runs of “Tristan und Isolde” and “La Fille du Régiment.” But the company has had a harder time stirring interest in “Grimes,” which drew considerably less than a full house on opening night. Met audiences show inexplicable resistance to this opera: I remember the depressing sight of row upon row of empty seats when Philip Langridge gave a searing account of the title role ten years ago. Gelb has virtuosically marketed stars such as Anna Netrebko and Natalie Dessay, but the challenge with “Grimes” is to sell the work itself, to convince a cautious public of its beauty and power. It’s the same challenge Gerard Mortier will face when he begins importing thorny twentieth-century fare to City Opera next year. Perhaps ancillary events—lectures, literary readings, film showings—would make New York’s intellectual set aware that opera has more to offer than beautiful voices preening in front of sumptuous sets. When “Grimes” is broadcast on the Met’s Live in HD series, on March 15th, a national audience can see for itself that Peter Grimes’s descent into madness has the cosmic chill of the greatest scenes in Shakespeare.