I've been looking forward to the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Britten's Peter Grimes ever since they announced it last year. I'm a major-league opera fan—postgraduate level, if there is such a designation—and my sub-specialty, so to speak, is the operas of Benjamin Britten, a true 20th-century genius. And Grimes is a near-perfect work of musical theater. I was fortunate to be able to prepare for Monday's performance by listening to the premiere that was webcast on both Sirius and the Met's own Web site on opening night, February 28. Listening to the webcast and following the libretto was excellent preparation. I have admired the directorial skills of John Doyle, whose highly imaginative and resourceful Sweeney Todd production I saw in London and again in New York, and whose last-season Broadway production of Company, which I also enjoyed, was just telecast on PBS last week. It's also fortunate for audiences around the world that Grimes has been chosen to be one of the HD telecasts to be shown in movie theaters on March 15. As is customary, it will also be broadcast worldwide on radio that day. Talented as Doyle may be, what really counts is the fine conducting by Donald Runnicles and the work of his perfect cast, including Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes, Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford, and Anthony Michaels-Moore as Capt. Balstrode. All of the numerous inhabitants of The Borough were portrayed to perfection; this opera is a wonderfully realistic depiction of life in a small English fishing village, modeled closely on Britten's own Aldeburgh. Much has been written about the sound of the sea, which pervades nearly every moment of this work. Although we never actually see it, we feel the motion of the sea and hear the storms. The excellence and economy of the libretto by Montagu Slater are also telling, depicting the small-mindedness and prejudices of the villagers.
Professional critics have to go to so many performances that it must be hard to keep from getting one's perceptions blurred. The main criticisms of this production seemed to be of the stage set. I'm weighing in with the opinion that the set is a marvel of deceptive simplicity and ingenuity and works beautifully. Check out the picture in the links. And, more important, the performance was overwhelming. Really a shattering work. My expectations were more than realized. Doyle let the work sing and speak for itself and did not make his first assignment at the Met into an ego trip, as so many have done. The cast, all British or American with one New Zealander, could not have been better. A wonderful evening.
One marvels at the amazing talent of Britten, probably Britain's greatest musician ever. He was also prolific, working in many forms. The role of Grimes was created for his life partner and collaborator, Peter Pears, who is said to have given the role a more lyrical, poetic spin. Later interpreters have made the character harsher and gruffer. Anthony Dean Griffey, a young American tenor, had both aspects in his well-thought-out, gorgeously sung portrayal.
Speaking of Britten, I always chuckle when I recall the bit of four-line doggerel by Jacques Barzun:
Needn't give himself airs:
He has them written
By Benjamin Britten
To digress, this little form is called a clerihew. What is a clerihew? 1) It is four lines long; 2) the first and second lines rhyme, as do the third and fourth; 3) the first line names a person, and the second line ends with a rhyme for the name; 4) it should be funny. It was invented by and is named for one Edmund Clerihew Bentley. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)