June 22, 2016

Princeton Festival Ventures Into Dark Operatic Realm With “Peter Grimes”

This season Princeton Festival has undertaken one of the most complex and challenging operas in the repertory with Benjamin Britten’s dark but poetic Peter Grimes. Like the World War II years in which the opera was composed, Peter Grimes has many levels, reaching back to 19th century morality while drawing on fears and suspicions still prevalent today. The date of the opera’s premiere, in London’s first few post-war months, makes the genesis of this work even more remarkable. 

In the early 1940s, Britten had been in the United States for several years when he came across late 18th-century English poet George Crabbe’s narrative poem The Borough. The fishing town described in the poem reminded Britten of his hometown Aldeburgh, also a seaside village on England’s east coast, and in 1942 he returned to England with a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation in hand to compose an opera based on Crabbe’s poem. In the finished opera, the central character, fisherman Peter Grimes, remains an enigma to the rest of the residents in his sea village throughout the story. Was he a murderer or child abuser, or was he the victim of mob mentality over a tragedy gone even further wrong? With the lead character’s sanity always in question, Peter Grimes has a bit of Frankenstein, The Perfect Storm, a kangaroo court and a great deal of complexity, all of which was brought to life by the Princeton Festival in a production led by conductor Richard Tang Yuk which opened Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre.

Britten’s score for Peter Grimes is as intricate as its characters, with a musical style rooted in compositional conventions of the early 20th century while reaffirming the characters and plotlines. Britten did not write arias for this opera, but rather vocal soliloquies which were demanding in their lack of melodic anchors and their intervallic demands. The characters of Peter Grimes (sung by tenor Alex Richardson) and his love interest Ellen Orford (sung by soprano Caroline Worra) sang a duet at the end of the opening prologue addressing the predicament Grimes finds himself in, with each singer presenting an unaccompanied vocal line in opposite keys. Grimes’s solo lines continue to become more divergent with wide melodic intervals as the opera goes on, showing his gradual dissociation from the village.

Mr. Richardson (who will be appearing with the Metropolitan Opera next season) and Ms. Worra each did not miss a beat in vocal roles which required supreme confidence to sing either unaccompanied or against accompaniment that is deliberately of no help harmonically. Unassuming in character, Mr. Richardson was sufficiently unkempt to resemble someone who had been at sea for a while, and sang richly with clear diction over a lush orchestra. Ms. Worra conveyed sympathy for Grimes in a voice which was light when necessary and especially soared over the orchestra in the opening to the second act, accompanied by a chanting offstage chorus. This couple was well matched, and at times controlled the score themselves without conductor or orchestral accompaniment.

Several very strong characters were found in mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, singing the role of Auntie, and the two nieces, sung by Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms. Ms. Gigliotti possessed a powerful voice and an animated character, as she kept the other characters in line as keeper of the local tavern. The characters of the two nieces were comic relief in an otherwise dark opera, and Ms. Beebe and Ms. Harms were perfectly matched vocally. A quartet of Ms. Worra, Ms. Gigliotti, Ms. Beebe and Ms. Harms at the close of act two’s first scene was particularly strong.

Strong male secondary leads included Stephen Gaertner (Balstrode), Casey Finnigan (Bob Boles), and Joseph Barron (Swallow). Chorus master Gregory Geehern compiled a full-bodied chorus of strong operatic voices which was solid throughout, and added poignancy to an Act 2 beach scene and precision to a complex close to closing scenes in Acts 2 and 3. The Festival orchestra had its hands full, playing a lush score with precision and adeptness. The orchestral interludes of the opera (during which scenes were discreetly changed) effectively added to the visual effects created by set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson and lighting designer Norman Coates with crisp rhythms and attention to Britten’s musical details; the brass in particular evoked images of the sea. Costumes designed by Marie Miller were appropriate for the time, and Steven LaCosse’s direction made good use of the multiple levels in the Matthews Theatre stage.

Princeton Festival’s production of Peter Grimes is not for the faint of heart — the plot subject borders on the unsavory, and some of the underlying issues are uncomfortably close to questions in today’s society. However, the roster of singers is among the highest it has ever been with the Festival, and Britten’s opera is a story which should be told.

“Peter Grimes” continues on Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 26 at 3 p.m. at McCarter Theatre Center. For information call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.princetonfestival.org.