Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!
Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, arguably one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, is a prominent feature of this year’s Princeton Festival in Princeton, New Jersey.
It’s not by any means what one would call a ‘festive’ piece, neither in book nor in score. No, Peter Grimes is a work that lingers, at least with me, music that seeps from the murk below into one’s consciousness when one least expects it. Especially when you’re near the ocean. In March, yes, like this past March, when the weather was particularly beastly. Blowing mist…cold.
OperaMetro spoke with Richard Tang Yuk, who conducts the Princeton Festival Orchestra for Peter Grimes, Steven LaCosse, who directs the production, and tenor Alex Richardson, who sings the title role. Perhaps they can shed some light on Mr. Grimes and his so called exercise.
For this, OperaMetro formats their responses to my email questions as if we four were actively discussing Peter Grimes over a pint or two at The Boar with the damp salt air blowing in from the North Sea. Quite a bit of a draft!
Ned Keene (NK): Mind that door!
OperaMetro (OM): What? Well, cheers, gentlemen! A toast to Peter Grimes and to the Princeton Festival 2016 for block and tackling this masterpiece and bringing it to the stage! Impetus?
Richard Tang Yuk (RTY): Well, from the standpoint of the performers the opera is immensely rewarding, artistically and emotionally. I suppose it's like discovering a good novel and being totally consumed in it. Artistically it’s important as well: Britten's operas forged new paths in the realm of English opera with his very distinctive and original style. I very much admire Britten’s music.
OM: I, too. You’ve conducted other scores by Britten?
RTY: Yes. I’ve performed many of Britten’s choral works and conducted A Midsummer Night's Dream, also The Rape of Lucretia. But this is my first production of Peter Grimes. I’ve been quite eager to do this one for the Festival.
OM: It’s not at all very happy opera, is it.
Steven LaCosse (SLC): No, not at all! Peter Grimes is an ‘every man’ who has had a very hard life. He wants to earn an honest living and provide for the future home and family he envisions with the schoolmistress, the widow Ellen Orford. But Grimes is a loner, and therefore not one of the ‘acceptable’ folks of the Borough. For some reason they’ve collectively shifted their focus from each other to him, to his shortcomings and eccentricities.
OM: These are the negative aspects of communal solidarity. Their ‘ways’ are deemed the only ‘way,’ and managed, however informally, by threats of varying degrees of exclusion, everything from teasing, bullying, mocking, public shaming, slandering, shunning, excommunicating, incarcerating, exiling, even executing. It’s ugly.
SLC: Yet not a one of them is without fault. The Borough people around Grimes are very hypocritical.
OM: Absolutely: the Methodist Bob Boles condemns them all for enjoying a spot of rum as they shelter themselves at The Boar during the height of the storm, but he manages to get himself blithering drunk and begins talking love around the young Nieces. Ned Keene is pretty relaxed, easy going, open minded, he even helps Peter haul his boat ashore when the town turns its back. But he also is an enabler for Mrs. Sedley’s addiction to laudanum. And let’s not forget Auntie, who is running essentially the village whorehouse at The Boar. No sign yet of Auntie’s Nieces today, however.
SLC: The Borough folk use Peter as both the source and the target of their fear and hatred, which allows them to carry around their own dirty secrets close to them, find excuses, and go on with their lives. Even at the opera’s beginning Peter is at a low point, hyper sensitive and vulnerable to their influence.
OM: And when you think about it, Peter and Ellen or, for that matter, even Balstrode don’t really know what his ‘crime’ is, what his ‘exercise’ is. He knows they gossip about him, but he doesn’t really know why. Why Peter? You’re singing Grimes, Alex. Your thoughts?
Alex Richardson (AR): From my perspective Peter’s two most prominent traits are his over sensitivity to the town’s gossip, which goes on sometimes right to his face, but also behind his back. And then there is his obsession to raise his standing in the town by fishing the big catch to eventually become a wealthy and respectable merchant. He wants this more than anything. But he is proud too: he is not willing to marry Ellen until he feels he has earned the regard of the townspeople. And he wants her respect to come with her hand in marriage, “Not for pity,” he says to Balstrode in the storm scene. He doesn’t want to tarnish her reputation.
OM: There’s no chance the town folks will ever hold him in high regard.
AR: Certainly not in the opera.
OM: I remember reading that George Crabbe’s The Borough, which is the source of the opera, depicts a much more reprehensible Peter Grimes, certainly more so than in Montagu Slater’s libretto or in Britten and Peter Pears’ ultimate conception of the role. According to Pears, I’m paraphrasing here, Grimes is neither a psychopath nor a criminal, but rather more or less a misfit, one whose behavior is to some extent understandable and excusable.
AR: As to that, I think it will be important for us to portray Grimes’ softer moments where he is calm, thinking clearly, and behaving appropriately, so as to highlight the reasons behind his outbursts. The main side that most people tend to remember about Peter Grimes is his unstable side. Though Grimes becomes more and more mentally unstable as the opera progresses, I believe that he isn’t violent by nature. And I believe his isolation is painful to a degree. He longs for peace, warmth, and kindness. But his obsession for wealth and his insecurity lead him to make irrational decisions. These completely cloud his judgment when dealing with others in the Borough. The main trigger for his switch from stable to unstable is the gossip of the townspeople. The opera is very well-written in this regard.
OM: Their ‘chatter’ is clearly orchestrated in the score. In the lower woodwinds mainly, I believe.
AR: The Prologue, curtain up, sets the scene perfectly and immediately informs the audience of what the relationships in the opera are. Most of the townsfolk are there. Peter Grimes is being publicly questioned about the death of his young apprentice while they were fishing at sea, and we see that Grimes at first is calm, answering the questions clearly. But responses from the townspeople, increasingly noisy, agitate Grimes into making his own outburst to the judge and at the them, demanding that he receive an actual trial so as to stop the town's gossip and “thrust into their mouths the simple truth.”
SLC: Exactly: Peter does not deny the case against him. The boy died out there three days at sea without water on a boatload of fish. They have all the facts. But it is when the townspeople begin to chatter and gossip that he starts to break down.
AR: Right, and the room erupts in chaos and is finally cleared of the people, leaving Grimes alone with Ellen, who comes to comfort him. They have a poignant, unaccompanied duet in which the two characters are singing in two different and conflicting keys, until Ellen calms him down enough that they sing the last few phrases in unison as she leads him out of the room assuring him that she is a friend to him.
OM: For me, Ellen is his elusive future, which is ideally calming and protecting. He says to her in that Prologue that her voice out of pain is like a hand that you can feel and know: here is a friend. There are repeated references to the ‘hand’ throughout the opera, and when later he brusquely takes away her hand, one senses his gate to that sought after future is now nearly closed. Yet more than once he asks himself where is home? What harbor shelters peace? These are textual themes as well as musical themes. And then there are those marvelous orchestral interludes, transitioning the moods and interweaving the themes.
RTY: Yes, interludes…it takes time to fully appreciate the layered complexity and nuances of the score and libretto. One can only glean so much on the first hearing, but the investment of time with this opera reaps tremendous rewards. It’s like the enjoyment of a fine wine. I greatly admire the craftsmanship in the writing: his extensive use of counterpoint, the innovative rhythmic vitality, his harmonic language, penchant for haunting melodies, and the clarity of his orchestration. Britten’s score evokes the psychological state of the dramatic elements, with no distractions or superfluous material, but rather it enhances what is happening in the story, almost like a movie soundtrack, producing a unified artistic entity.
OM: I find the opera very affecting, very sad, empty. Particularly the end. Like Berg’s Wozzeck. A human life is allowed to go under, lost, practically unnoticed, and the lives of those left in the Borough simply go on. Who will be next?
AR: I hope the audience leaves our production thinking that under different circumstances, Peter Grimes might have been able to live a decent life in his society.
OM: Thank you, gentlemen, for your insights and wisdom. On to Grimes! Ned! Another round!
Afterthoughts: Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed the role of Peter Grimes explicitly for his long time companion, tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986). The world premiere took place on June 7, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells, with Joan Cross as Ellen and Owen Brannigan as Swallow. Reginald Goodall conducted. Excerpts of Grimes were recorded at this time with Pears, Cross, and Goodall, available on CD through the EMI/HMV British Composers series. The US premiere of Peter Grimes was at Tanglewood under Leonard Bernstein in 1946; the Metropolitan Opera followed suit in February of 1948.
Ever Britten’s muse, Pears also created the roles of Albert Herring, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw, Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Philip Wingrave in Owen Wingrave, and Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. He recorded Peter Grimes with Britten on the podium both on Decca audio in 1958 (with Claire Watson and Owen Brannigan) and on a BBC studio video in color in 1969 (with Heather Harper). The late great Jon Vickers also recorded Peter Grimes on Philips audio in 1978 and on video from Covent Garden in 1981, both with Heather Harper, both under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. Another highly recommended recording is with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Felicity Lott on EMI (1992), conducted by Bernard Haitink. All of the above are available from retailers.
The Princeton Festival cast of Peter Grimes includes Alex Richardson as Grimes, Caroline Worra as Ellen Orford, Stephen Gaertner as Captain Balstrode, Eve Gigliotti as Auntie, Jessica Beebe as the First Niece, Sharon Harms as the Second Niece, Joseph Barron as the lawyer Swallow, Kathryn Krasovec as Mrs. Sedley, Sean Anderson as Ned Keene, Casey Finnigan as Bob Boles, Christopher Job as Hobson, and Logan Webber as Reverend Horace Adams.
Jonathan Dahm Robertson is Set Designer, Norman Coates is Lighting Designer, Marie Miller is Costume Designer, and Gregory Geehern is Chorus Master.
Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is performed on the evenings of Saturday, June 18, at 8 p.m. and Thursday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. A matinee performance is on Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m. Reserved seating for all performances, at prices of $140, $110, $90, $70, $50, and $30. Tickets may be purchased online @ www.princetonfestival.org, click “buy tickets;” by telephone: 609-258-2787, or purchase them in person at the Ticket Office in the front foyer of the McCarter Theatre, which is located at 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. The box office is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays; call for weekend hours which are variable.
Princeton is a lovely town in the spring. Actually all year round. Enjoy!