It seems fitting that Houston Grand Opera chose to open its new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on Halloween weekend, because it is a thoroughly terrifying opera.
The 1945 masterpiece begins with a coroner’s inquest. In the title role, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is a scary monster throughout. A drunken preacher vomits. HGO’s magnificent chorus is just like the crazed mob in James Whale’s 1931 horror classic film Frankenstein. I think the strongest reason the opera scared me, however, is because this innovative production vividly recalls the tiny, oppressive New England town where I grew up.
“Alright, we’re getting somewhere in this session,” as my psychiatrist used to say whenever I hovered on insight.
To watch any Benjamin Britten opera is to have a deeply psychological experience. And like any worthwhile therapy session, one comes away changed. I’ve seen hundreds of opera performances at many of world’s great opera houses, and HGO’s Peter Grimes is most definitely in the top 10 of my experience.
While conductor Patrick Summers gave us rousing clarity in last week’s season-opener, Madame Butterfly, Puccini’s orchestral writing is largely schmaltzy, swollen and sentimental. In other words, it’s not necessarily the best vehicle for demonstrating a conductor’s range. Britten’s score, on the other hand, is extraordinarily multi-layered, as challenging as the most extreme Mahler symphony.
The orchestration is cognizant of the most important psychological operas in the decades just preceding Britten’s first major opera. One thinks of Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (for its rich impressionism), Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (mainly due to its free atonality and passacaglia variations), and Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (for its raw expressionism and allegory) while listening to Peter Grimes.
The music, however, transcends the intellect and goes straight to the emotions and senses. It is better described in the manner usually given to wine and perfume: Waves of adrenalin, hints of breaking glass, sudden shifts between major and minor, a drunken waltz, undertones of marching drums and chapel organs. As well, the orchestra is probably the most prominent “character” in the opera, the sea. With his stunning interpretation, Summers gives us all the power, unpredictability and life force of the ocean.
In program notes, director Neil Armfield writes that in this production, “…we experience landscape, weather, light and atmosphere as psychological conditions.” This is likely what makes the experience so thrillingly disturbing.
The prologue and three acts unfold inside Ralph Myers’ timeless community center, with its cheap fluorescent lights, stained broken clock, push-doors and stackable chairs. It could be a V.F.W. hall in any small American town, readily recognizable to any viewer. Observing it, you have the uncomfortable feeling that you should have shown up with a salad, main course, or dessert.
Tess Schofield’s scrappy proletariat outfits suggest the work and weather in the town, fishing and cold-and-stormy, except for two pink party dresses for the town’s floozies, Auntie’s first and second niece.
I’ve always considered the HGO Chorus a marvel, and here they not only sing, they mend fishing nets, haul ropes, stack chairs, dance and get drunk. Often they move downstage in direct confrontation with the audience, and the fourth wall becomes fragile if not broken. Kudos to choreographer Denni Sayers and lighting designer Damien Cooper, whose efforts further illustrate the disturbing psychological portrait of the town in which Grimes is doomed.
Stunning solo performances abound here. Griffey’s brave tenor voice is singular, though it recalls the elegance and passion of Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and the man who also premiered the role (look for his Third Act on YouTube).
Soprano Katie Van Kooten’s lilting, well-phrased delivery is a stunning contrast to Griffey, especially as she knits and interrogates Grimes’ latest apprentice about the bruise on his neck, while an insistent church choir sings off-stage. I don’t know how she does it. Meredith Arwady is the kind of Auntie you’d love to kick back too many jugs of cheap wine with, and Christopher Purves’ interpretation as Balstrode is gleaming and confident. The laudanum-addicted Mrs. Sedley, as sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers, is one of those “crazy wisdom” characters, and she brings a sharp continuity to the three acts.
“His exercise is not with men, but killing boys!” sing the townsfolk in act one. Is Grimes a pedophile, a child-beater, a serial murderer, or all three? Is he serious about wanting to marry Ellen?
Boys always suffer extraordinary trouble at the hands of men in Britten’s operas, from Miles in The Turn of the Screw (seen last season at HGO) to Tadzio in Death in Venice. Yet there is a strangely overwhelming redemption in these characters. As a homosexual, I think Britten identified closely with these boys, not their perpetrators.
My advice to you, if this is your first foray into his operas, is that of Vanessa Redgrave to Jane Fonda in the 1977 film Julia: “Don’t be afraid to be afraid.”