You don’t often hear the grand operas of Benjamin Britten on smaller stages. They re such subtle interactions of precise, detailed orchestral and choral effects with so many demanding (and highly rewarding) vocal parts, besides calling for a naturalistic acting style of a sort seldom called for by the grand operas of a previous era that only a company of tremendous resource, musical and otherwise, can give them without risking serious humiliation.
The Met’s wrongheaded John Doyle production of Peter Grimes was such an embarrassment that they do not dare revive it and so we have lost, for the moment anyway, our contact with one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century music theater, a work on the edge of the favorite repertory.
Therefore it is a surprise and a pleasure, for New Yorkers who love the work, to have Grimes undertaken as by the Princeton Festival at the McCarter Theater, and to have the orchestra and chorus perform it with elegance and precision, to have the complement of the opera’s many solo roles largely well taken. I caught the opening on Saturday night; there will be further performances on Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon.
The cast was full of names familiar from other local companies, including the Met. Caroline Worra sang and acted Ellen Orford with the proper reticence, but had problems producing high notes quietly: Her shrillness at the conclusion of the women’s regretful quartet was a bit of a shock. Eve Gigliotti, also boomed a bit as Auntie, but one expects Auntie to be boisterous.
Gigliotti’s near-contralto is so round and buxom and handsome that it fits right in, but considering how much power she has to draw on, she might consider singing from further back on the stage. Stephen Gaertner, who gave us a superb Gianni Schicchi at Princeton a couple of years back, did nicely in the far quieter role of the discreet Balstrode.
New to me, and worth keeping an eye out for in the future, were mellifluous baritone Casey Finnigan, having a high old time as Bob Boles, Joseph Barron as the pompous mayor, Swallow, lacking only the bottom-most notes of the part, and Sean Anderson, a sturdy Ned Keene. The entire cast were impressively in tune on Britten’s tricky but rewarding harmonies, and the Gregory Geehern’s Festival Opera Chorus sang with enthusiasm and beauty.
And what, you ask, of Peter Grimes himself? This is the first major role Britten designed for his life-partner Peter Pears, and it later proved career-defining for the very different talents of Jon Vickers. Alex Richardson possesses a very pretty tenor indeed, beautifully produced and even throughout its compass.
He phrases well, rather too cautiously imitating Pears’ effects, and his acting, shy in the first scenes, grew in stature in the course of the evening to the hallucinations of Act II and the madness of Act III without ever detracting from Richardson’s vocal luster. I’d actually much rather hear him as Tamino or Ottavio than so multi-layered, brutally driven a role as Grimes; he has not yet acquired enough stage experience for those layers.
He did not become a fisherman with a bent for violence, not to mention murder—one was never terrified of this Grimes, or indeed of any of these singers. The burly, sea-battling fishermen’s ethos that Britten (and his librettist) worked so manfully to present in this opera was absent from this ginger, cautious performance.
I have seen splendid ensemble performances in some of the world’s largest opera houses where one could believe Mrs. Nabob drugged, a Grimes and Balstrode who were threatening, Nieces who teased, an apprentice in terror of his life. If there is no palpable menace in Peter Grimes, poor Ellen is no angelic rescuer but merely ineffectual. The performance was without tragic bite.
Steven LaCosse’s direction, besides the elementary mistake of “choreographing” the Sea Interludes, was confusing and prissy in its handling crowds. The townsfolk are the antagonists who drive Grimes to his doom. They should be sulky; they should be snootily obsessed with their own concerns (and hypocrisies). Here they were clumsy and distracted and did not know where to look, awaiting their vocal cues.
When Balstrode enters the tavern and is startled by the sight of Mrs. Sedley, she should not be hidden at the other end of a very crowded stage, and when a boat or a sea is pointed out towards the audience, it makes little sense to run to the “beach” in the opposite direction. Occasionally I shut my eyes to get a better show from just listening. They sang it very well. (When did it become the fashion to stage the hallucination whenever an opera character sees something that is not there?)
Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s stage design of elevated piers and dangling nets was evocative and, no doubt, inexpensive. Marie Miller’s costumes looked more downtown urban than fishing village. (Those hats!) Norman Coates’s lighting missed some chances to highlight characters who are sung about before they sing, and where on earth was the storm?
The heroes of the performance were Richard Tang Yuk and the Princeton Festival Orchestra, who completely appreciated the dramatic rise and fall, the dynamism, the vivid nautical imagery of this magnificent score. The Sea Interludes may sound more lush from the top-rank orchestras who love to perform them, but the elegant give and take of instruments with singers was skillfully and beautifully managed. I suspect another rehearsal or two might reassure the soloists that they are audible without battling the band, but that imbalance was rare and will, I suspect, be less in the remaining performances.
Photos: Jessi Franko