Music Review: Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Washington National Opera

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

"Peter Grimes," Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera, is a dark story about society against the individual. In the Washington National Opera's strong and beautifully cast production, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the individuals were very good. When they banded together, things were sometimes problematic -- musically, as well as for the outcast antihero whom they hunt into madness.

Paul Curran's subdued production, set in roughly the era when the opera was written, captures the muted palette of an English fishing village without lapsing into the grim inkiness of John Doyle's recent Metropolitan Opera staging. Geometric pentagons of houses -- squares topped with triangles, as a child might draw them -- turned unseeing facades on the village's public spaces, sometimes opening doors to emit crowds of villagers who band into a judgmental unit against any perception of otherness. (Curran underlined this theme at the end of the Prologue, set in a courtroom, when the charwomen bristled with passive aggression at Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher who struggles to reform Grimes.)

Then there were the singers. As Grimes, Christopher Ventris had the rugged good looks to make Ellen's attraction plausible, and a rugged voice blended with fine musicianship that carved poetic lines of silver into the stone of this obdurate role, though he sometimes pushed his voice too hard in the attempt to sing out over conductor Ilan Volkov's unchecked orchestra.

Patricia Racette, a luminous singer, mostly shone as Ellen, though her top notes were a little strident -- again in part because of the heavy hand in the pit. Ellen is a difficult role: the character can seem credulous, naive, ineffective, as she sets out to help Grimes without seeming to have any idea of how to go about it beyond being supportive of his new apprentice. Racette's finest moments came when her character set her chin and stood up to the villagers, particularly in Act 1 ("Let her among you without fault cast the first stone!"). At such times she conveyed both vulnerability and courage.

The third principal is Captain Balstrode, who maintains his own wind-torn strength, like a pillar of weathered rock amid the waves of the villagers -- easy to do if you wield the natural strength of a voice like Alan Held's. Held also managed to capture the captain's crustiness without lapsing into old-salt cliche.

The only significant flaw in a powerful evening lay with the conductor. Volkov drew many colors and beauties out of the score, but didn't always distinguish between them or provide the emphasis that would have brought out the music's strong through line. As a result, the big ensembles so central to this opera sometimes grew muddy.

The first village scene, in which sunlight sparkles (audibly) on the water while the villagers shoot out glints of phrases at each other -- "Good morning!" "Good morning!" -- felt flat. The good news is that such problems are fixable, and may be largely resolved with greater familiarity (there are five more performances through April 4). Volkov certainly did a better job in the third act.

One trick of staging "Grimes" lies in drawing the various characters with a sure enough hand that the audience can get a feel for who they are, yet making it believable that they can get swept up into the crowd mentality. It helps to have such strong singers as WNO marshaled. Keith Phares sang with a marvelous frank lyricism as Ned Keene, the decent but weak apothecary who lines up Grimes's new apprentice. Myrna Paris invested the busybody Mrs. Sedley with a stentorian contralto and the right kind of sententious hysteria as she pops laudanum pills and follows Grimes's purported crimes like a demonic Miss Marple.

Mr. Swallow, whose language and music denote a pompous, potbellied lawyer, was surprisingly cast with Daniel Okulitch, the handsome young baritone whose widest recognition may be for his nude scene in the title role of Howard Shore's otherwise forgettable opera "The Fly," and who sang well in this unlikely role. As Auntie, the town publican and madam, Ann McMahon Quintero made less of an impression than she might have. Two sopranos from the company's young-artist program, Emily Albrink and Micaƫla Oeste, were well used as Auntie's "nieces." Beyond Curran's sometimes distracting stage business for them, their only weakness lay in representing, through no fault of their own, a pair of disproportionately classy village prostitutes.

All these figures ultimately join forces against Grimes, incited by the penetrating voice of Bob Boles (David Cangelosi), the hypocritical Methodist minister, and supported by the beating of the carter Hobson's drum. Unfortunately, Curran's deployment of the mob wasn't always successful. Conceiving of the work as a single dramatic gesture, he left the curtain up through all the orchestral interludes that delineate the spaces between each scene. While it kept the evening from feeling choppy, this approach sometimes made for awkward mass entrances and exits, as when the chorus poured in to fill the empty village pub in the climactic storm scene that ends Act 1. Still, clumsy as it was, the chorus's fierce cry of "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" in Act 3 was startling enough to cause chills in a listener.

And while librettist Montagu Slater's opaque prose sometimes obscures the sense of what's actually going on, the tragedy's main action remained clear: that the mob precipitates exactly the event -- the death of the second apprentice -- that it is purportedly trying to avoid. Then, sated, it closes over Grimes's head. Curran had the villagers sway gently, like the ocean swell, in the final scene as the town resumes its daily business, less uncaring than impervious.

Another group represented on Saturday were subscribers to the now-defunct Baltimore Opera, more than 800 of whom were given free tickets to "Peter Grimes" in a gesture of solidarity from WNO. The evening was certainly a convincing demonstration that opera in this region can still be vital.

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