With its theme of the non-conformist individual pitted against conformist society, Peter Grimes continues to resonate with today's audiences. The trouble is, no matter how you portray him, the title character is not a nice person, even if you try to excuse his behavior as mental illness. He is self-centered, bullying, emotionally distant, and at least circumstantially responsible for the death of the two boys who served as his apprentices. Some productions turn him into a child molester, but there's no credible way of turning him into a misunderstood hero. Peter Grimes also is saddled with a sometimes embarrassingly bad libretto by Montagu Slater, although the score itself has many fine moments, particularly for the women and for the chorus.
This new production from the Zürich Opera House succeeds on many accounts, but fails hugely on the visual level. Director David Pountney and set designer Robert Israel have left the most important character out of this production, and that is the sea. This Peter Grimes could be taking place in Our Town's Grover's Corners, for all we know. From left to right and top to bottom, the stage is persistently cluttered, which never allows Grimes' isolation to register. In fact, the conceit of this production is that various residents of Grimes' village, known as "The Borough," spend the opera sitting in chairs suspended many feet over the stage itself. They knit, mend nets, read letters, and so on, apparently oblivious to the drama below. Even during the several important orchestral interludes they keep on "doing their thing," thereby killing the mood that Britten so carefully created. Video director Felix Breisach compounds the problem by giving us close-up views of these prosaic citizens – again, especially during the interludes. Atmosphere, bye-bye. I would love to see a production of Peter Grimes in which the curtains closed and there was no visual foolishness of any sort at these points in the score. Also, Pountney seems to think that The Borough is right next door to Kurt Weill's Mahagonny, so pronounced is the German Expressionist influence in this production. I really expected the slatternly Auntie and her two even more slatternly nieces (all red-wigged) to start singing, "Oh moon of Alabama" in the middle of act II. It doesn't help that many of the cast members are native German speakers, and bring their accents with them!
Still, there are reasons why this DVD is a keeper. Conductor Welser-Möst gets more drama and less "cutesiness" out of this score than any other conductor I've heard, including Britten himself. I don't know what his history is with Peter Grimes, but it sounds as if he approached it with a fresh set of ears, and without preconceptions about how it is "supposed" to sound. If the sea is missing from the stage, it is practically drowning the residents of the orchestra pit.
In the title role, English tenor Christopher Ventris obviously is going to be compared to Peter Pears and Jon Vickers, his most famous predecessors in this role. The bearish Ventris (who made his American debut as Parsifal in 1990) definitely is closer to Vickers in sound, although his voice is warmer and juicier. He makes many a gorgeous sound here, and there's nothing wrong with that, even in this role. The only problem is that his Grimes never seems to go farther than irritation and anger. The character's essential oddness never comes to the fore. Even the mad scene in the last act isn't very mad, and when he shows up The Boar to sing his soliloquy about the "Great Bear and Pleiades," what should be a intensely disquieting moment is nothing of the sort.
Emily Magee is a sympathetic Ellen, but thanks to Slater, this character is a cipher, and Magee doesn't bring much to it except some very nice singing, particularly in her Embroidery Aria in the last act. I was very pleased, though, that she didn't come off as a petulant nag during her Sunday morning confrontation with Grimes – a trap that every other soprano falls into. Muff's accented Balstrode is younger than usual, and even enjoys a squeeze or three with Auntie and the two nieces. As Mrs. Sedley, Cornelia Kallisch channels Agatha Christie's Miss Marple with uncommon delight. Truly, this is one of the most irritating and poorly conceived roles in the operatic repertoire, and Kallisch fearlessly throws herself into its abyss. Again, thanks to Pountney, Nikiteanu's hip-swinging Auntie seems to be in the wrong opera. All of the smaller roles are done with an eye (and ear) for characterization. Even the individual choristers get personalities. As usual, John, the new apprentice, doesn't get much to do, but for some reason, he and William Spode (the first apprentice, who is dead before the opera begins), are carried onstage by Ellen and Balstrode during Grimes' mad scene. Both are nearly naked, I suppose to give fuel to the argument that Grimes is a pederast. From the zombie-like way in which Ellen and Balstrode deliver their final lines, I suppose the point is that they all are figments of Grimes' now completely shattered (supposedly) mind.
The sound is excellent, and the picture quality is fine, except, as mentioned above, this production has been poorly shot for video. The credits insist not only that Ellen Orford is sung by "Emely Magee," but also that Auntie has two "Nices," and that one of the residents of the Borough is a "loyer." Clearly, if you are a loyer, you belong in the foyer!
Copyright © 2008, Raymond Tuttle