"Peter Grimes" Opens Tonight at Washington National Opera

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009

Opera is theater. Sometimes that seems to be forgotten. When a Eugene O'Neill play is revived, it's welcomed as a classic. When an opera by Benjamin Britten from the same period is revived, people still worry about its "modern music."

So it is that "Peter Grimes," Britten's first and magisterial opera from 1945, which opens a run at the Washington National Opera tonight, is often less than a hit at the box office. In a way, response to this work about an eccentric fisherman in a small village has been consistent ever since the world premiere at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. Then, advance protest from less-than-appreciative musicians in the cast, and from people politically opposed to Britten's pacifism in wartime, helped brew resistance to the work before a note of it had been heard in public. But after the premiere, the opera was such a resounding success that the fire curtain was rung down to quell the ovations at the final performance.

Within a few years "Peter Grimes" had had a score of major productions around the world and was widely hailed as a masterpiece. It is still represented in the repertory: The Washington production comes from Santa Fe, where it opened in 2005, and the Metropolitan Opera introduced its new John Doyle production last season.

But the opera remains curiously misunderstood: dismissed as too lightweight and "Broadway" by some, feared for its scary modern music by others. At the beginning of Tony Palmer's 1979 Britten documentary, "A Time There Was" (re-released on DVD last fall), Leonard Bernstein defends Britten's music, not from charges of inaccessibility but from charges of being too light and charming. Bernstein certainly found plenty to admire in Britten's music: "Peter Grimes" is filled with melodic antecedents of things that later crop up in Bernstein's scores (the falling flutes before the Act 2 women's quartet anticipate "Somewhere"; the male mad scene, with its fractured reprises of the previous action, is reflected later in "Mass"). Indeed, Britten and Bernstein are joined in the late-20th-century canon in that both were gifted dramatic composers with a natural flair for melody. And "Grimes" has the musical numbers of an old-fashioned 19th-century opera: arias and ensembles, a storm scene and a mad scene, plus toe-tapping melodies to convey local color.

Some of the ambiguity around "Grimes's" reception has to do with the ambiguity of the story. Grimes is a dubious hero in some productions, an outright antihero in others; much depends on the singer and the director's reading of Montagu Slater's florid libretto.

The opera is the story of an individual pitted against a society that is committed to rooting out "otherness." (Its wistful second theme is another that remained even closer to Britten's heart: the loss of childhood innocence, which resurfaced in later operas, from "The Turn of the Screw" to "Death in Venice.") Grimes is an eccentric fisherman who wants to gain financial security and respect in his small village but is too odd to fit in, in part because of the accidental death of his young apprentice but even more so because of moments such as his Blake-like soliloquy in the middle of the crowded local pub in Act 1.

The exact nature of Grimes's otherness is open to debate. In the documentary, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten's life partner of 40 years, mentions that he and Britten identified with the sense of being outsiders because of their pacifism, making that term seem almost a euphemism for homosexuality. In fact, the two did take a lot of heat for their antiwar stance; but of course homosexuality was technically a crime in Britain in that era, and Britten suffered for it, as well. It does not require a great imaginative leap to identify a strain of closeted homosexuality in Grimes, the outsider who has a most unromantic relationship with the local schoolteacher, Ellen Orford (who wants to redeem him) and a complex relationship to young boys.

Gay or no, the figure of Grimes gives the opera an otherness that has perhaps retarded its public acceptance -- something compounded by the fact that, like a Greek hero, he carries his tragic flaw (in this case, his inability to conform) within himself.

Musically, the opera's best-known feature is the orchestral interludes between each scene, six in all, part tone poem and part dramatic vehicle (like the keening viola in the passacaglia fourth interlude, representing the mute apprentice). But the story is also furthered by an ingenious use of leitmotifs through the score. An example: After arguing with Ellen about his mistreatment of the new apprentice, Grimes strikes her and exits with a dramatic "God have mercy upon me!" The music of this phrase then becomes the bass line in the passacaglia. Later, it is taken up by the busybody villagers, who, suspecting Peter of all manner of infamy, sing "Grimes is at his exercise!" to the same notes. It's one example of Britten's superiority as a musical technician. His work was not only beautifully imagined but also always beautifully crafted. Last summer, the 1969 BBC "Grimes" was released on DVD for the first time, with Pears in the title role and Britten's authoritative conducting giving the composer's own firm, nuanced conception of what may remain his greatest work.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company