By Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Ilan Volkov
Director: Paul Curran
Peter Grimes: Christopher Ventris
Ellen Orford: Patricia Racette
Captain Balstrode: Alan Held
Just as the sky was finally clearing up after days of relentless cloudiness and rain, I was getting ready to embark on an opera that I had so far avoided because the two comments generally associated to it are "hopelessly grim" and "over three-hour long." On the other hand, I like to think of myself as an open-minded person and this Peter Grimes had a cast way too exciting to ignore: Tenor Christopher Ventris had been a solid Fidelio a few seasons ago, soprano Patricia Arquette had blown everybody away in Jenufa two years ago, and Alan Held, our beloved local Wagnerian bass-baritone, is as reliable a singer as they come. Inspired by Suffolk poet George Crabbe's The Borough, the story of the outcast fisherman revels indeed in pessimism, but is also a universal and unfortunately still relevant tale of a man against a mob. The reputedly striking score and some very positive reviews eventually contributed to my decision to go and brace myself, but there was no need for that. Time just flew by.
Not only Britten's first major work, it is also his most well-known to date and has been steadily performed in major opera houses around the world. While the plot starts with Peter Grimes defending himself against a crime he did not commit and things go pretty much downhill from there, it is also full of ambiguities regarding characters and situations and is not as straightforward as it may seem at first. The title role himself is never clearly defined, appearing both as cruel but sensitive, simple-minded but psychologically complex, fiercely independent but yearning for a family. This big bear of a man never seems to do the right thing, although at the end of the day his fate is sealed more by the hard blows dealt to him than his own shortcomings.
And we have to give credit to Christopher Ventris for successfully bringing out some human qualities in this seemingly brute. Beside his beautifully nuanced singing, he was able to occasionally convey a touching sense of vulnerability, that same vulnerability that no doubt arose motherly feelings in Ellen. As Peter's steady ally, Patricia Racette was right-on as the sweet, educated widow, who expresses genuine human interest in helping him, and her singing was fearlessly transcendental whether she bravely stood up to the villagers or desperately tried to tame the reckless fisherman. Alan Held easily complemented this duo with his towering presence and unmistakable voice, and it's hard to imagine a more appropriate Captain Balstrode, Grimes' only other friend.
Another major element in Peter Grimes is the mob of viciously gossiping villagers, who set the drama in motion. Therefore, the chorus is an almost constant presence on and off stage, and today the ensemble was more than up to the task, effortlessly delivering multi-layered, sometimes bone-chilling, singing and strongly reinforcing the feelings of claustrophobia, hypocrisy and mass hysteria. The last scene, in which Peter walks towards the sea as the parting crowd slowly sways as if to swallow him while Ellen and Balstrode stand tall at each side of the stage, remained a powerful and lasting vision.
Although the story is not pretty, the music is downright beautiful. As one of the first major contemporary operas, Peter Grimes has a complex, poly-tonal score of symphonic dimensions that also shines through its simplicity and directness. No hummable melodies here, but a bit of English folksong combined with Britten's personal inspiration, including the gripping Sea Interludes. This afternoon, the music discreetly supported but never overtook the action or the singing, and that was all very well.
Last, but not least, another major contribution to this memorable production was the drab costumes and the bleak décor in which geometrical buildings in muted shades of blue and off-white had multi-purposes, switching from the village square to the pub's interior. Near the end, the two rows of houses leaning towards the center where Peter Grimes stood alone in the background were an arresting image of the village slowly closing down on him.
Written during trying times in Europe, Peter Grimes dared to raise questions about the Rousseauist theme of man and society and the fundamental issues of morality and social injustice. Add an economical but deeply moving score and the result is a true, all-encompassing work of art. My incredible experience at the Kennedy Center this afternoon was undoubtedly worth being open-minded and missing the couple of hours of sunshine of the whole weekend. An opera has rarely shone so bright.