“Peter Grimes”: A Varied Musical Feast


Ellen Orford, the unhappy schoolteacher in Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera, “Peter Grimes,” sings of “this unrelenting work,” and it would be tempting to apply that phrase to the totality of what some say is Britten’s finest full-scale evening. Despite “Grimes”‘s grimness, I can’t agree with that assessment. Musically, it is too richly varied. Yes, there are stretches of unhappy lyricism, but, just when you think you can’t take another minute of this story of an English fisherman and his unhappy outsider life, out pops a moment of melodic whimsy. Usually, this takes near-comic form: Britten was a kind of Supremo of Staccato; he delighted in setting poetic fragments to percolating music. Last night, at “Grimes”‘s new-production premiere, at the Metropolitan Opera, in a staging directed by John Doyle, the musical virtues were intact: Donald Runnicles drew inspired playing from the orchestra, and the chorus sang man- and woman-fully well. Anyone who’s heard Jon Vickers in the title role might feel that Anthony Dean Griffey (pictured) lacked torment and a sense of the character’s ability to be both terrifying AND touching. But there was nothing to carp about about in Griffey’s voice, which only got better as the hours went by. Felicity Palmer was quite comic as the town biddy Mrs. Sedley; Patricia Racette was a very acceptable Ellen; and Teddy Tahu Rhodes made a striking Met debut as Ned Keene. I wish the gifted Scott Pask’s giant, wood-slatted slab of a set had given us a little more to think about than the fact of the walls moving in as Peter Grimes moves toward his sad fate; but the ingenious doors up and down that dark wall opened like the doors of an Advent calendar. I say Advent even though, at the moment, it’s Lent: a season more in keeping with this opera’s sense of suffering and sinning.

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