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March 22, 2009

Washington National Opera’s staging of Peter Grimes freshly relevant in the age of A.I.G.

WNO Peter GrimesMany an uncomfortable lesson about human nature lies within Benjamin Britten’s 1945 operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes, a tale of small-mindedness, conclusion-jumping and rapid swells of populist outrage in a seaside village. Those multi-layered messages seemed even more relevant than usual at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, the opening night for Washington National Opera’s striking production, coming as it did after such an emotional week in our own world.

Consider the end of Act 2, when the villagers are so aroused by suspicions “sweeping furious thro’ the land” that they march off to confront the outsider Grimes, singing about how they “shall strike and strike to kill.” They don’t have all the details about this strange fisherman and his supposed crimes, and they certainly haven’t considered the ramifications of mob justice. But they’re not about to stop and think now.

It was hard to watch that scene on Saturday without being reminded of the righteous indignation over A.I.G. bonuses “sweeping furious” through Congress, the pundit-ocracy and the masses, not to mention the smattering of deadly threats. Any number of other recent outbreaks of knee-jerk, cable-TV-flamed behaviour in our society came to mind as well.

The impulse to judge quickly and harshly is one of the biggest issues in Peter Grimes, a brilliant fusion of music and theater that holds up an unflattering mirror to all of us. In it can be seen the ugly power of gossip, a power as destructive as the sea that periodically threatens the opera’s villagers; the cruel price of hypocrisy; the misuse of religious zeal; the dangerous policy of insisting that everything is black or white.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect about this work – outside of Britten’s stunning, endlessly imaginative, penetrating music – is ...

WNO Peter Grimesthat it can’t be viewed from only one side. It doesn’t support cut-and-dried conclusions. We are forced to think long and deeply about nearly every person in the cast, nearly every event that transpires.

The character of Grimes is unsettling. He’s creepy, violent, maybe even sadistic. Two boy apprentices die while working for him, and he cannot really escape blame in either case. Yet, something fundamentally decent, or at least hopeful and even poetic, in Grimes nonetheless draws the love of Ellen, the local schoolmarm, and the sympathy of Balstrode, an old sea captain  -- the only two townsfolk who resist the scornful majority. That Grimes must lose his own life before we can learn his whole story or see far enough into his heart is what gives the opera its affecting tragedy.

In the Washington staging (the production if from Santa Fe Opera), director Paul Curran taps into that tragedy with brilliant results, aided every step of the way by Robert Innes Hopkin’s sets and costumes and the wonderfully atmospheric lighting of Rick Fisher.

The opera, inspired by George Crabbe’s 1810 narrative poem "The Borough" (Montagu Slater fashioned the vivid libretto), has been set here in the 1940s, playing up the contemporary feeling of the issues involved. The few colorless buildings that flank the stage create a suitably one-sided, claustrophobic atmosphere. At one point, those edifices close in on Ellen when she tries to defy the prevailing wind of public opinion, underlining her isolation. In another telling bit of theatricality, the village structures are shaken off their very foundations by angry shouts of the Grimes-hating crowd. It all adds up to a gripping night at the opera.

WNO Peter GrimesOn Saturday, the cast proved uniformly impressive. Christopher Ventris conveyed the complexity and contradictions of Grimes with great insight. He’s a true singing actor. He made the most of the challenging, unaccompanied monologue in Act 3, when the hunted, haunted Grimes unleashes a stream of conscious and subconscious thoughts. The sight of Ventris, sitting on his knees rocking back and forth, as if still out on the impenetrable waves, lingered in the memory. The tenor encountered a few troubled top notes along the way, and he did not produce a particularly rich gradation of tone coloring, but his voice had an appealing directness and his every phrase produced communicative results.

As Ellen, Patricia Racette used her warm, clear, flexible soprano and astute acting skills to capture the character’s mix of certitude and qualms. Her exquisitely shaded performance yielded touching results. Alan Held, as Balstrode, sang vibrantly, and his acting was finely detailed.

Fleshing out the supporting roles with a good deal of colorful vocal and theatrical flourish were: Keith Phares (Ned Keene), Myrna Paris (Mrs. Sedley), Robert Baker (Rev. Adams), David Cangelosi (Boles), Ann McMahon Quintero (Auntie), Daniel Okulitch (Swallow) and John Marcus Bindel (Hobson). Two of the company’s young artists, Micaela Oeste and Emily Albrink, revealed sparkling soprano voices as the Nieces. Alexander Lange, in the voiceless role of Grimes’ latest, doomed apprentice, did a persuasive job.

The choral part in Peter Grimes is essential to the musical and dramatic foundation, and the Washington choristers, prepared by Steven Gathman, rose potently to the occasion. The orchestra produced the score’s prismatic tapestry handsomely. Conductor Ilan Volkov missed some opportunities for subtlety, and he could have allowed more breathing room for the most stirring passages of the music. But this was, nonetheless, a strongly committed effort that complemented the intensity onstage and helped to honor the beauty and grit of a profound, timeless opera.

Performances continue through April 4. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:39 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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