NEW YORK — Benjamin Britten’s heart-rending first opera, Peter Grimes, perhaps his greatest achievement, returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Oct. 16 with two key artists: British tenor Allan Clayton in the title role and Australian conductor Nicholas Carter in the pit. Both had debuted at the Met last season in Bret Dean’s Hamlet, an all-around success, and anticipation was high, as Clayton has sung as Grimes elsewhere to considerable acclaim.
For various reasons, not least the increased competition from new and newish English-language operas (which owe no small debt to Britten), Peter Grimes doesn’t get quite the same attention it once commanded here. The arrival of Clayton would once have been the catalyst for a new production. Instead, we got a revival of John Doyle’s flawed 2008 staging, created for Anthony Dean Griffey.
It features a stage-filling wall of weathered building façades, made to look like an early 19th-century street in Aldeburgh, the town where Britten grew up and where George Crabbe’s poem, on which the libretto was based, is set. The wall can move forward for a cramped effect or backwards to open up space, as for the chorus of villagers who become an important character in the opera. Windows all the way up the wall can open individually so that characters can pop out, as in a cuckoo clock, for the various ensembles. But in most cases, it makes no sense for them to be upstairs looking out, so the effect is surreal and a bit awkward in what is otherwise a rather conservative setting of the work. That abstract approach is more successful with the costumes, by Ann Hould-Ward, with the villagers all in black: women in long dresses with capes and bonnets, men in long coats.
Peter Grimes is a complex, dark, visceral opera. Except for Ellen, the widowed teacher who attempts to rescue Grimes, and the apprentice, John, the characters are seriously flawed. Grimes is hated because he doesn’t fit in. He is given to fits of rage, including violence towards his apprentices, orphan children from the workhouse (dismissed by villagers as “brats conceived outside the sheets”). The villagers gossip cruelly, trading falsehoods and looking for a scapegoat. They shun Grimes, then become a dangerous mob, marching to his hut to extract vengeance. It’s all quite relevant and topical.
But what sets Peter Grimes apart, even from Britten’s own later work, is the mesmerizing, surging, altogether original score. Evoking the townspeople in detail, dramatically exploding at times as Peter’s predicament, and his madness, become more severe, it also portrays yet another character: the sea, always looming on the horizon. Vital to the village’s fragile economy, it is the wellspring of Peter’s hopes for fortune but is feared for its deadly violence. The six orchestral interludes, ostensibly written to cover scene changes, are often extracted and performed in various combinations as orchestra suites, especially as the Four Sea Interludes. They are thrilling when heard alone, but they take on added power when performed inside this uniquely compelling opera.
Peter Grimes has found a great new champion in conductor Carter. His approach — precise, sometimes spare, sometimes lush, filled with drama — was one of the evening’s delights. Often he restrained the orchestra, giving more weight to his singers and especially to the mighty Met chorus.
The other delight was Clayton, who sings with wondrous lyricism, his voice powerful and controlled throughout the range, his high notes pure. His aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” was a heart-stopping introspective moment that dug deep into Grimes’ poetic soul. Clayton’s depiction of Grimes is more nuanced than that of the great Jon Vickers, who was better at showing the cruel side of Grimes. With Clayton, that side is certainly there in flashes, but there is a tortured nobility that is very much in keeping with Britten’s music. His final soliloquy was profoundly moving. Like Vickers, Clayton is a fine actor, with a mastery of facial expression and body posture.
Nicole Car might seem too young for the role of Ellen Orford. But she displayed motherly warmth and pathos towards both Peter and John. She has a winning voice with fine coloring and unforced highs.
Adam Plachetka portrayed Captain Balstrode as a world-weary skipper, balancing his role as Peter’s only friend with a calculated restraint. Denyce Graves was surprisingly bland as Auntie. Michaela Martens was suitably vicious as Mrs. Sedley. Also strong were Patrick Carfizzi as the lawyer Swallow, Chad Shelton as Bob Boles, and Harold Wilson as Hobson. Tony Stevenson was impressive in the role of Rev. Adams.
This performance was the season premiere of Peter Grimes, so it was disheartening to see about a third of the seats empty. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, as the major 20th-century works attract less interest, with more focus on earlier warhorse operas and on new material. It’s also possible that Sunday matinees, still a new idea at the Met, have yet to come into their own, and that attendance this weekend suffered as the spotlight focused on the re-opening concerts next door at the newly renovated Geffen Hall.
Peter Grimes will continue through Nov. 12. For information and tickets, go here. In yet another indignity, it apparently will not be included among the Met’s HD transmissions this season.