Musical genius overcomes misguided production concept in HGO’s Peter Grimes

10.31.10
Patrick Summers
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

Houston Grand Opera's Peter Grimes sounds so great that it conveys the devastating power of Benjamin Britten's tragic masterpiece despite a key miscalculation in the physical production that puts its look at odds with the work's content and atmosphere.

The attributes are indisputable.

Anthony Dean Griffey, who has triumphed in the title role from Glyndebourne to the Met (in different productions), gives a haunting performance as the outcast hero, singing with aching beauty. The role of schoolmistress Ellen Orford, Grimes' only friend, could not be any more sensitively acted or exquisitely sung than it is here by Katie Van Kooten.

The HGO Chorus, prepared by Richard Bado, gives an impeccable reading of the vast choral "role," as important as any in the opera. And Patrick Summers conducts Britten's turbulent, moody score with rare artistry and insight, achieving an orchestral performance as spine-tinglingly exciting as it is accomplished — nowhere more notably than in the evocative interludes bridging the scenes.

The story remains gripping as ever, reflecting the clash between the individual and society through the downfall of misfit Grimes because of the suspicions of townsfolk in the Borough, a struggling fishing community.

After one of his young apprentices dies under mysterious circumstances, though the cause is deemed accidental, Grimes' strange behavior and mistreatment of the dead boy's replacement, plus the misfortune of one tragic accident, turn the town's malicious gossips into a lynch mob.

The reservations arise from director Neil Armfield's production concept.

His decision to update the action, from the original 1830s to World War II, when Britten composed the opera, is not the problem. Tess Schofield's workaday costumes aptly reflect the privations suffered in those years. Nor is it particularly damaging to make the small role of Dr. Crabbe (named for George Crabbe, author of the poem on which the opera is based) into an actual representation of the author, serving as silent witness throughout the proceedings - though not everyone will get the point.

The misjudgment is that Armfield has placed the entire opera within a large, nondescript meeting room of the town hall, as if the villagers are enacting the tale there. According to a program note, Armfield's goal was to capture the raw excitement of a final rehearsal hall run-through and encourage the audience to imagine the tale's seaside settings rather than having them depicted literally.

Yet however authentic designer Ralph Myers' meeting room and however lighting designer Damien Cooper strives to vary its look (including indoor lightning for a storm scene, which just looks as if someone is fiddling with the light switch), placing all the action in this drab, utilitarian setting squanders the opportunity for visuals that would match the grandeur of the score. Whatever its advantages, the device seems wrongheaded in a work whose music and libretto constantly describe the natural world of sea and sky. In this regard, Armfield has conceptualized the production into a corner.

Otherwise, Armfield's staging is effective and to the point: Grimes' abrupt moves and helpless meandering, gossips skulking in corners, the villagers' mischievous cavorting at a pub and, most potent of all, the mob's menacing advance downstage.

With his sweet and pure tenor, Griffey plays Grimes like a shy choirboy who went awry growing up. Progressively isolated, tormented and unhinged, he achieves genuine pathos. He expresses Grimes' poetic reveries and yearning aspirations with wistful lyricism, yet brings a stabbing force to his outbursts of rage and resentment, and his Act 3 mad aria is alarmingly fine.

With her radiant soprano and intense conviction, Van Kooten is ideal as the compassionate Ellen. She conveys the heartbreaking essence of the role, that her desperate effort to save Grimes is futile, as she at last realizes in her beautiful "Embroidery" aria.

Christopher Purves brings sturdy voice and grizzled authority to Captain Balstrode, the voice of common sense unheeded by the villagers. Meredith Arwady invests no-nonsense pub keeper Auntie with robust voice and take-charge manner.

As Summers, Griffey, Van Kooten and the entire cast, chorus and orchestra realize the composer's magnificent score so brilliantly, perhaps the best response to the show's distracting visual framework would be (to paraphrase that time-honored punch line): "Close your eyes and think of Britten."