Opera Review: “Peter Grimes” @ The Met
(Photos by Ken Howard)
Like its central character, Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” occupies a precarious place in the social consciousness. With its attractive score and mysteriously dark story, the opera evokes the same kind of scrutiny the ambiguously sinister yet psychologically compelling Grimes attracts from the local townspeople; folks don’t know whether to sympathize with it, or to send it off to some penal colony never to be heard from again. But Grimes the opera is faring better these days than its conflicted hero in that it is often considered to be one of the greatest operas of the last century. Yet because of its subject–an angry fisherman whose abusive violence toward young boy apprentices attracts the town’s judgement when one of the boys turns up inexplicably dead–the opera cannot escape a lingering skepticism about whether or not it should be taken as a work of great artistic and moral value.
The opera is often championed as an allegory for the outcast soul, particularly that of the gay male in contemporary society (a position unfortunately promoted by its creators, Britten and his long-time partner and the first tenor to sing Grimes, Peter Pears), but such metaphor making is seriously compromised by the textual realities of the work, that, even interpreted liberally, still do not excuse Grimes’s violence: This opera is not about adult consensual romantic love; it’s about an adult person who is violent toward children. So casting is key, given that the audience is expected to identify with a hero who is essentially the town child abuser. If you get the right Grimes to enter the role, make him, if not likeable, then at least attractive, then you might have a compelling piece of theater on your hands. I hate to report that The Metropolitan Opera’s new production, a dark, cold, rigid staging with a casting flaw at its center, isn’t going to do much to benefit the future of the opera’s legacy.
Because fact is that, absent of any moral virtues–he’s angry, violent, stubborn, and has a questionable obsession with young boys–the only thing left to catalyze people’s sympathy is sexual attraction; a force of nature that has been and will continue to be the root of infinite moral crises. If Grimes is hot, not only does that infuse the character with a preternatural power that neither the audience nor the other characters can fault him for outright, it makes his resistance to the collective conscience (because everyone desires him as much if not more than they revile him) all the more frustrating, and therefore, compelling. That being said, Anthony Dean Griffey simply isn’t right for this part.
To be clear, it isn’t just that Mr. Griffey is noticeably overweight. There are people on the heavy side who are in touch with their bodies’ sensuality; who know how to wield the sexual powers of the curvaceous body that are so forbidden today. But Griffey isn’t one of them. His on-stage energy is self-consciously nervous. His arms are always held tensely away from his sides, his hands cocked upward, fingers clawing. And his facial expression is either a creepy sneer, or a creepy smile, or a creepy scowl. Again, it’s not like the sneer or scowl that comes off the face of, say, James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano, you know, the kind of look that lets you know he’s about to have your fingers cut off and you knees crushed with a baseball bat, but you’d still go down on him anyway. No. Griffey’s entire demeanor was all creep without the sex appeal. It just doesn’t work on stage. And if Grimes doesn’t work, “Grimes” can’t work.
The rest of the production, directed by John Doyle, while having merits, still fell to shortcomings.
Scott Pask’s set, a single, enormous shuttered wall of dark wooden planks (like the sides of a ship, or a tavern) that rises and fills the entire proscenium, and two side pieces that occasionally roll in to narrow the stage, is beautiful to look at (thanks to intelligent lighting by Peter Mumford). But the way it’s used is not always successful. The wall only moves backward and forward (sometimes inexplicably), which gives the whole production a cramped feeling, no doubt meant to evoke the puritanical caginess of the nineteenth century British sea town. It’s a nice concept, but here comes across as too literal. And the wall is nicely quilted with little doors and window that climb all the way up to the ceiling, through with the opera’s morose cast of characters appear and sing, as if they were in a giant Advent Calendar of woe.
Even this effect, played so strictly–in fact, nearly every moment of this opera is played out toward the audience, chorus line style–is really only triumphant in one moment, the unforgettable Act II women’s quartet, where Leah Partridge and Erin Morley (as two cousins) join beautifully with Patricia Racette (as Ellen Orford) and Jill Grove (as Auntie) to top out the mesmerizing vocal writing. The performers create a stunning snapshot of the woman’s role in this particular society; other attempts at using the set in the aims of portraiture come across as difficult and diluted.
Racette gave a powerful performance as the well-meaning Christian who sympathizes with Grimes and advocates for him against all odds. Her voice is top notch, and her stage presence is effective. Her Act III aria was sublime. And you do identify with her, with her good faith effort to keep the gossipmongering townspeople at bay. But even her role is compromised by the fact that, in the end, she’s wrong. The second boy she helps procure for Grimes, against the town’s protests, meets the same ill fate of the first boy Grimes was accused–and acquitted–of murdering. So, thanks for trying to do the Christian thing (which is more can be said for the alcoholic, sex-crazed preacher or the drug-addicted troublemaker, Mrs. Seadley, played marvelously by Felicity Palmer ), but a little secular rationality would have done this town a lot of good. Because, here’s the deal: If Grimes’s behavior, as is suggested, is simply a matter of mental illness, then we now know that we can treat that with medicine and therapy; or if his violence is not due to insanity, and is just the kind of person he is, then we know to keep him away from children. Whatever moral or psychological atom Ellen’s character was meant to stand in for just doesn’t stand up to contemporary knowledge. Where her quasi religious moral will attempts to counter the falsely religious condemnation her fellow Christians aim at Grimes, her high minded naivety dooms another boy to suffer Grime’s well-known abuses.
Other performances that stood out were Jill Groves’ benevolent, blue-collar inn-keeper, Auntie, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in his Met debut as Ned Keene. Rhodes’ voice is marvelous and his stage presence is capable of sustaining much bigger roles that this. Bass, Anthony Michaels-Moore, was a steady, somber Balstrode.
The orchestra, under the vivacious baton Donald Runnicles, filled Britten’s score nicely. The brass section surged during the final interlude of Act I, chromatic constructions piling up and spilling down over occasional booming raps from the bass drum. And the chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, while getting off to a shaky start, eventually found its footing, and by the end of the first scene of Act III, their perilous cries of “Peter Grimes!” shook the house.
But any good from the other parts of this production is ceaselessly battered by Griffey’s incongruous presence. His moments alone with the silent character of his second apprentice are uncomfortable to watch. And his voice, while sufficient to sing the part, isn’t necessarily the kind for which you will set aside some visual discrepancies in order to appreciate. He also had a lot of problems singing the faster passages, some lines coming out totally indecipherable (although this has a lot to do with Britten’s poor treatment of English prosody), and, for an American singer, some of his vowels were curiously softened (i.e. singing “that” with a soft a (as in “all”), rather than the short a of “hat”). For an opera that already rides such a touchy line between psychological fascination and moral laxity, a casting error of this proportion not only tips the scales firmly to one side (the latter), it undoes the very thing the creators of this piece tried so intricately to do: to make you question why everyone hates Peter Grimes.
“Peter Grimes” continues at The Met, March 7, 11, 15, 20, and 24.