Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes crowns the 2016 Princeton Festival
Peter Grimes is a big opera and a little opera too.
It’s big in the genius underlying its creation, big in its preparation and execution, big in the range of its characters and the social implications hovering above each moment, all in all a big opera to put on stage. But it’s little in the people, rutting about in their little day-to-day routines in a little English east coast fishing village on North Sea.
Conspicuous in this Princeton Grimes is the meticulousness of the overall preparation. Conductor Richard Tang Yuk had all the players in the pit under his strict control, they obviously well-rehearsed with Britten’s wonderful score; director Steven LaCosse put his stamp on every cast member on stage. No small feats these, believe me.
After the argument is posed in conversation that opera staging today is far more sensitive to real-life nuances in interpersonal behavior than it was in the good ole stand-and-deliver days, one can make the case, however, though the point is well taken, that even a ‘grand’ opera like Verdi’s Aïda, with its large cast, big orchestra, chorus and sets, is still far easier to stage than a smaller opera like Britten’s Peter Grimes. In the latter, each character has a fairly detailed personality well drawn by music, text, expression and stage action. And the orchestral writing is in no way as redundant as that in most of the Italian opera repertory of the 19th century. Let’s also not forget the numerous scene changes made in Grimes with curtain up in short musical time spans. In sum, the tremendous information load of an opera like Grimes puts a significant burden on any company.
Add to this the directorial challenge of creating the necessary ambiguity surrounding many of the characters, making this ambiguity purposeful rather than inconsistent, sloppy, or overlooked in rehearsal. Are the townsfolk justified in their persecution of Peter Grimes? Are some simply heartless and mean? Are they all on the same page or are some basically passive or uncaring, "live and let live" about the goings on around them? Do they have different investments, spoken or unspoken, in his demise? But what manner of threat did he pose to them? Oh the workhouse boys? Do they care about the workhouse boys? “I am native, rooted here,” Grimes says to Balstrode, but he is not apparently known to most by anything other than reputation or hearsay. What was Peter’s relationship with Ellen Orford before the opera starts? On what basis is it founded? How did they meet?
Alex Richardson’s Grimes started slowly, but as the Borough’s vice tightens his character's self-control collapses. Brief outbursts signal the formation of the cracks. We watch him crumble. Richardson had heft of voice, technique and good range to handle the vocal demands and the dramatic expression as well to create a complex character. Bravo!
His ‘angel,’ Ellen Orford was taken by Caroline Worra, whose emotional range was somewhat more constricted, but whose clear and silvery voice shined throughout. Particularly lovely was the quartet “In the gutter” in Act II with Worra, Eve Gigliotti (Auntie) and Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms (the Nieces). The Nieces were always particularly fetching and charming.
Gigliotti’s good natured Auntie firmly maintained her ground against the pounding surf of propriety represented by one Mrs. Sedley, in the program titled ‘widow and busybody,’ omitting ‘opiate addict’ (laudamun), this adjectival phrase left to come to the minds of those who read the synopsis and/or listened carefully to the text on stage. The other is Bob Boles, titled ‘methodist fisherman, belligerent when drunk.’ He also cuts through the crowd like a squall at high tide with religious censures for any deviations from the Word. Kathryn Krasovec’s Sedley was appropriately tight, proper, and corporate, out of sync actually with the rest of the Borough. But then she is a widow of substance, of the merchant rank, and probably as miserable with herself as she is with others. At home (not shown) she downs gin martinis, shaken not stirred. Krasovec was unbending in her pursuit of Grimes. Casey Finnigan as Boles was also monomaniacal as moral reformer, as vigilante, and as an amourous tippler who seeks to sip at the cups of the Nieces. Both were impressive characters.
Balstrode cannot exactly be called a friend of Peter Grimes, but he, also an old salt, is respected and certainly can engage Grimes in an adult conversation. Interesting that he provides the perspective that the first boy’s death while fishing at sea with Grimes might have been accelerated by malnutrition in the workhouse; interesting too that Balstrode was not forward with that observation at the initial hearing. Hmmm. Where was he? Stephen Gaertner was first rate as Balstrode.
His ‘foil,’ if that’s the right word, is Ned Keene, sung by Sean Anderson. Keene is billed as ‘apothecary and quack,’ but as much to the point he’s a dandy, a flirt, an enabler, also charming. Anderson fit the role to perfection. Joseph Barron’s Swallow, the lawyer, was oily and probably corrupt, certainly lacking scruples; Logan Webber, Christopher Job, Harry Fini, William Guhl-Erdie and E. Alexander Hermann round out the cast. All singers were first rate and completely committed to their performances.
Updating the time of the production from the late 1700s (George Crabbe wrote The Village stories, the source of Peter Grimes in 1783) to the 1940s is not in the least jarring in the manner that opera updates often are. Imagine Aïda set in 1945. In fact, it allows more leeway in character differentiation through the costuming. Mrs. Sedley is corporate clad, Ellen Orford is school teacher conservative and Ned Keene looks slick, compared the others in their East Coast fisherperson chic. Costumes were by Marie Miller.
Nor does the update challenge Jonathan Dahm’s set design or Norman Coates’ lighting. A barrel is a barrel, a net is a net, and so on, and they have to change quickly with the music. This they did admirably. Thankfully LaCosse or Dahm didn’t see the need to give Mrs. Sedley a Rolls to cement her status. Driving on laudanum is not a good idea.
Tang Yuk’s tempi were measured, all instruments clearly articulated, and all entrances precise, all together. It was exhilarating to hear Britten’s score in such an acoustically alive theater as the Matthews. I wanted a bigger climax to the end of the Boar scene (Act I, Scene II). It seemed to let up earlier than the weatherman predicted. But Tang Yuk did hold back with the chorus as they form the manhunt to take down Peter Grimes, the volume of this contrasting sharply with the eerie emptiness of Peter's final moments and the closing curtain.
Peter Grimes was performed in the Matthews Theatre, mainstage of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, on June 26, 2016, the final performance of three.
It was indeed a pleasure to journey south to witness the Festival’s centerpiece. See you next year! JRS