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Aldeburgh’s (Not So) Great Wall

New York
Metropolitan Opera
02/28/2008 -  and March 3, 7, 11, 15 (matinee), 20, 24
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Patricia Racette (Ellen Orford), Anthony Dean Griffey (Peter Grimes), Felicity Palmer (Mrs. Sedles), Jill Grove (Auntie), Leah Partridge (First Niece), Erin Morley (Second Niece), Greg Felderly (Bob Boles), Bernard Fitch (Rev. Horace Adams), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Ned Keene), John Del Carlo(Swallow), Dean Peterson(Hobson), Logan William Erickson (Boy)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (Conductor), Donald Palumbo (Choral Director)
Scott Pask (Set Designer), Ann Hould-Ward (Costume Designer), Peter Mumford (Lighting Designer), John Doyle (Production)

“What harbor shelters peace? What harbor can embrace terrors and tragedies?” asks the librettist Montagu Slater, in this, one of the three or four most powerful operas of the last century. Peter Grimes, in fact, could surpass Turandot, Wozzeck or The Rake’s Progress. Peter Grimes stands by itself not only for the music, but the drama, the rapier- (or fishhook) sharp characterization, for the deep tragedy put into every line.

And this means that any production must encompass the sea (as seen from the land), the desolation of the fishing community, and most of all, the profound ambiguities of its eponymous character. The music was indeed impressive. But opera means drama, and the drama of this John Doyle production was stilted, stylized and, needlessly static.

Before the opening, we were greeted with a massive and gloomy warehouse wall reaching from the stage to the rigging almost 100 feet high. Hidden away are windows and doors, but the effect definitely promises a dark and ominous production.
Then comes the surprises, for this wall is the whole set of the opera. Yes, the wall moves from time to time, one dark wall gives way to another dark wall, the cobbled timber can show glints of light, even the hint of a sky. But usually it is shrouded in secrecy. And an opera whose freshness and theatre has elements of light, darkness, greys and tints of every color, this wall is massively monochromatic.

I can imagine director Doyle and Set Designer Pask selling the idea of the wall’s symbolism, of the wall as the blocking of the soul (or something like that). But even the most static operas give the illusion of movement, and this Great Wall just stands.
Oh, the wall is hardly monolithic. A good dozen windows and doors open and close throughout the production revealing characters: they are in church praying or stand on the windowsill judging, or condemning. Yet for all the complex mechanisms of windows and doors, the revelations seem more the stuff of an Agnes DeMille ballet than this most tragic opera.

More important, this is an opera where every line, every metaphor, every tragedy deals with the sea and the economic terrors of 1830 (or in the original George Crabbe poem, 1780) fishermen. Yet not a single drying fishing net? Not a hook? Not a boat?

The libretto calls for Peter “alone with his boat in the changeful light of a cloud-swept moon”, but there is nothing. Simply Peter in one of the great Mad Scenes of opera standing by the damned wall, one spotlight on his tormented body.

The second problem is that in an opera where the chorus is onstage more than half of the opera, here they are spread out against the wall, the women all in black, the men shapeless. They sing the Britten-Slater powerful words, but they could well be making a recording. Again, this was probably a symbol of a petrified community. But symbols are literary devices, and opera must be alive and moving.

Fortunately, opera is music, and musically there was everything to praise here. In fact, Anthony Dean Griffey not only looks the part of Grimes—big, shambling, homely, weatherworn—but his tenor voice is clear and magnificently full. If Peter Pears and Jon Vickers are the archetypal Grimes, Griffey can easily make a triumvirate. In his Act Three Mad Scene, imagined Lear “on a blasted heath” (though here it was that blasted wall!).

Patricia Racette was Ellen the saintly schoolteacher, and her voice was that of an angel. Her moment of drama, when she notices a bruise on Grimes’ new apprentice, “Were we right?....We have failed” was radiant.

Others deserve plaudits. Jill Grove as Auntie was a tough old bird and a terrific mezzo. The gossipy Mrs. Sedley has her own monologue, wonderfully done by Felicity Palmer. Judge Swallow was a stentorian John Del Carlo, and the sympathetic Captain Balstrode was Anthony Michaels-Moore, a fine baritone.

Most of all, the greatest applause must go to this incredible Metropolitan Opera Chorus. What Levine did for the orchestra, Donald Palumbo has done for these singers who carry the weight of the opera. Donald Runnicles conducted the orchestra with aplomb (the “Interludes” were indeed picture perfect).

No doubt this performance of Peter Grimes will make a splendid recording, and—since we might have different vantage points of the stage—an equally successful DVD. For the moment, one should listen to the music and try to evade the unchanging background.

Harry Rolnick



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