Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Attend the tale of Peter Grimes

March 25, 2008

Anthony Dean Griffey
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2008

Monday saw the final performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, which I caught with some trepidation. I usually don’t like seeing the last performance of an opera for many reasons, one being that by this time I’ve read everything everyone else has written and it unfairly raises or lowers my expectations. In this case, I had heard a lot of negative things, particularly about John Doyle’s staging, so I guess it’s no surprise that I actually really enjoyed the whole thing. Yes the two-dimensional set with its giant wall and the total lack of color doesn’t leave one with much to look at. Doyle seems to miss some of the biggest opportunities in Britten's score to wow the audience with stage craft. But there is some motion throughout and it does create the intended sense of claustrophobia on a stage that is known for anything but that. It seems to me that Peter Grimes suffers from the same problem as Fidelio - how do you make an inherently dreary setting interesting to look at for several hours in the course of listening to a masterpiece?

But let’s be clear, even if this were the concert performance it more or less turns out to be, musically it is a masterful one. Runnicles and the orchestra were fantastic and this was nothing short of a dream cast. The real star in any Britten opera, though, is the chorus and I can’t think of enough positive things to say about them here. Anthony Dean Griffey manages creepy where you least expect it which is pretty magnificent given his dough-boy looks. Plus, there isn’t a rotten apple in the entire supporting cast. Felicity Palmer seems to be making a specialty of the “old bitty” roles these days and she is wonderful. Anthony Michaels-Moore and Patricia Racette are superior as Peter’s only friends, and don’t get me started on how much I love Jill Grove who sinks her teeth into Auntie’s rather small part with total zeal. And not only are these great vocal performances, the acting is superb. Everyone is totally believable throughout, and the entire evening was blissfully free of the stock silent-film gestures that pollute most of what comes across opera stages these days.

But perhaps even more inspiring to me were the events around me in the audience. The extremely elderly couple next to me in the 6th row center failed to return from the first intermission after their just completed power naps to be replaced by a very young woman from the standing room who had picked up their tickets for the rest of the show. She was clearly new to the opera experience and commented on how strange it was to hear an opera sung in English, this being the first time she had done so. She was excited to see we were seated immediately next to John Lithgow, although she didn’t know who Stephen Sondheim, seated in front of us, was. In any event, she was completely thrilled by the whole thing making me envious of that time when everything in opera first seemed big and exciting and new. Apparently even Peter Grimes can inspire that feeling in people with this kind of production. Maybe it’s not all about dreamy romantic period costumes to be “transported” after all.



It seems to me that Peter Grimes suffers from the same problem as Fidelio - how do you make an inherently dreary setting interesting to look at for several hours in the course of listening to a masterpiece?

Hmmm...not really a fair comparison between the Britten and Beethoven, I'd say. Look at the settings in the libretto of Grimes: the town hall > beach > pub > beach > hut > beach (sorry if I missed any!); lots of room for variety and color and atmosphere.

The problem is one of my pet peeves: unit sets. I know they're cheaper and easier to deal with than realistic sets, but the most visually trying night I ever spent in an opera house was spending 4 hours looking at 3 white walls with a boulder stuck in the back one. The opera? Parsifal --forests, grail halls and gardens, forget it. Yikes.

So what did you say to Mr. Sondheim? :-)
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