By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
NEW YORK -- Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" is one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. It's also funny and colorful, as well as tragic, and when it opened in 1945, some commentators criticized it as smacking of Broadway.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production, which opened on Thursday night (and will be broadcast live to movie theaters around the country, including the D.C. area, on March 15), incorporates both musical quality -- through a notably strong cast led by Patricia Racette and Anthony Dean Griffey, the leading Peter Grimes today -- and Broadway. The latter is evoked by the involvement of John Doyle, the British director whose English productions of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and "Company," in which the performers played musical instruments in addition to acting their parts, were big successes on Broadway in 2006 and 2007.
But "Broadway," here, is no euphemism for chintz or light entertainment. Doyle's approach is about paring away embellishment and finding a work's core. This yields a "Grimes" as dark as Alban Berg's "Wozzeck": intense, grim and determinedly unrelieved.
The seaside fishing village becomes, in Scott Pask's set designs, a formidable wall of weathered gray wood filling the proscenium: a scene at first glance both predictable and inexorable. It all too obviously represents the closed society against which Grimes, the misfit fisherman, is pitted. It is clear that the doors and windows visible in the wall will pop open to reveal characters, like a Goth Advent calendar; it is clear that the wall will move, with many a creak and a groan, ultimately closing in on Grimes; it is clear that it eventually will lift, revealing light and air, upon his death. It is left to the lighting designer, Peter Mumford, to cast this wall in different moods that echo the shifting sea music of Britten's score.
In front of this barrier, the singers were marshaled with a ponderous stasis that also communicated all too well the oppressive tedium of village life. The real storytelling happened in the score. Donald Runnicles, the conductor, audibly engaged in heavy lifting, trying to bring this gorgeous and sophisticated music out of the gloom, though with some of the same sense of unrelieved intensity that permeated the evening. Still, the orchestra responded; the flutes, in one of the orchestral interludes depicting the moods of the sea, rose with a gleam of silver, echoing the chinks of light visible through the wooden facade onstage.
The Met certainly demonstrated that it takes this opera seriously by its deluxe casting of even character parts: Felicity Palmer clarion as the old busybody Mrs. Sedley, a comic role that turns sinister, and John Del Carlo as the ponderous lawyer Swallow. Most striking was Teddy Tahu Rhodes, making his Met debut as Ned Keene. This young New Zealand baritone has generated a lot of buzz for his good looks, but it was his full, healthy singing that stole the show.
Indeed, he outsang Anthony Michaels-Moore, who brought a strong voice but undifferentiated gruffness to Balstrode. Jill Grove also sounded atypically uneven as Auntie, the local madam; and Leah Partridge and Erin Morley as her two "nieces," the town prostitutes, had a few unsteady moments. The staging may have worked against the singers in the gorgeous female quartet that ends the first scene of Act 2: placed above and beside each other in the windows of the set, the women seemed not to be hearing each other well.
Racette sang luminously; at her entrance, her voice was a palpable presence, in which music and feeling were seamlessly fused. That it flagged later, losing color in places in its upper reaches, seemed to reflect the heaviness of the production that was weighing it down, a psychic drag.
Grimes himself is an icon of individualism, a study in latent homosexuality, an antihero whose unattractive sides can be softened or chiseled into a kind of frustrated machismo (as Jon Vickers did in his definitive portrayal). Griffey's Grimes is large and awkward, strong yet diffident. But it was striking that someone capable of such tenderness (the anguished swell of his voice on the word "alone," reined in to a wistful tightness like a presage of tears, was one example of gorgeous vocal acting) could ultimately emerge as so unsympathetic.
The problem with his character was the problem with the evening as a whole: It was so subdued that there was a sense of emptiness at the core. Griffey provided some masterful singing. But his death was inevitable, not tragic. Dry-eyed inexorability was the hallmark here, rolling over all attempts at individuation. That is a trait of neither Broadway nor opera, and certainly not of Britten's rich and nuanced masterpiece, which only barely prevailed.