Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten, Libretto by Montagu Slater
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Anthony Dean Griffey Credit: Ken Howard

Benjamin Britten’s first and most popular opera, which premièred in 1945, was inspired by The Borough, a poem by the 18th century clergyman George Crabbe. The story tells of a confrontation between a Suffolk fishing village community and the seaman they hold responsible for the deaths of two of his apprentices.

Peter Grimes shouldn’t be allowed near children. A callous, coarse and brutal man, he overworks and treats his apprentices cruelly. Britten’s Grimes, however, is not Crabbe’s sadist. He is a poor fisherman trying to escape a wretched life of poverty. Britten, a homosexual and a conscientious objector, identified with this isolated outsider.

But is Grimes a murderer? Is he a paedophile? Montagu Slater’s libretto is ambiguous.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s big, burly, craze-eyed fisherman is neither a demoniac nor a tragic figure; he comes across as an autistic the community has rejected. Deeply disturbed, he treats others as he has been treated—harshly and roughly—and is finally driven to madness and suicide.

Griffey is excellent and there is good support from Patricia Racette as the schoolmistress Grimes hopes to marry, Felicity Palmer as the village gossip and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the apothecary.

John Doyle’s production, poorly designed, was seen at The Met, New York in 2008. Doyle fails to use the chorus physically. I have seen productions where the chorus ebb and flow, swell and surge and are as powerful as the sea itself. Here they just stand in lines and deliver.

The chorus, in its malice and vicious hostility, dominates the action vocally. The raging storm, the turmoil and the Interludes, especially 2 and 4, brilliantly orchestrated, conducted by Donald Runnicles, provide the excitement rather than Doyle’s dull staging.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera on Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch