Met at the Movies: Peter Grimes (Review)

On March 15th (Saturday) I had another chance to go see Met HD Broadcast at a local movie theater, and I have to say that this one was by far the best of this season. Britten’s Peter Grimes, one might argue, is the best opera in English, even if some have reservations about the opera sung in English in general (see Justin Davidson’s review below with Mencken’s quote about baseball and Italy). It is a great work of music and its libretto is as interesting as anything opera-related. This new production of Peter Grimes was quite dark (color and emotion-wise) with a single piece of stage “furniture” that represents the village:

I suppose the idea was to represent the always watching eyes of the people of the Borough since the dramatic action revolves around Grimes’ alleged murder of the boy apprentice and consequent rumors. I thought that it was sometimes too dark and gritty, too depressing. I mean the opera is pretty dark and depressing, but during the moments when Grimes was dreaming of an impossible happy future with Ellen, there seemed to be no visual way of portraying the change. I can see how good camera work allowed the people in the movie theaters to see specific action in one or another corner of the set, but it must have been quite strange for the actual audience to stare at an imposing structure. Well, I think at least there was a concentrated effort to represent the events in a way that did not distract from the field of real struggle, i.e. the mind of Peter Grimes. I don’t know of any other operatic characters that is so complex: he is clearly an abusive and ill-tempered fisherman, but as we learn more about his motivation to work hard and get the money, we become more sympathetic, it seems to me. All he really wants is enough money to open a small shop so that he can marry Ellen. If one thinks of the story in terms of social conditions, exploitation, and eternal poverty, Peter Grimes is a victim of circumstances and of oppression of the working class. He is forced to exploit the system of apprentices and becomes impatient with his helpers due to his continuously aborted attempts to make ends meet.

Anthony Dean Griffey sang the title role of Peter Grimes and despite the fact that his voice was not as gritty and coarse as some of the lines could call for, I thought he did an amazing job of portraying the complex character of Grimes, especially after seeing him in the first intermission giving an interview and realizing that he is a shy, soft-spoken person in real life.

Patricia Racette sang the role of Ellen, Grimes’ only clear friend and a schoolteacher who hoped to save Grimes from his abusive behavior.

As per my usual complaint about people mopping floors and all kinds of backstage stuff, this time around there was much more thought behind the intermission time: interviews with performers, interviews with designer and director, live feed from Britten’s own Aldeburgh and an interview with Britten-Pears Foundation representative.

Here’s a review of Peter Grimes by Justin Davidson from New York Magazine:

Inglese, Per Favore?

Mencken called opera in English “about as sensible as baseball in Italian.” But it does have its charms.

Despite all the words that are sung in English every day, on every quadrant of the Earth, our language skulks around the edges of opera. Eighteenth-century Londoners believed it self-evident that the finest sung dramas should be unintelligible by design, which is how Handel, a German, came to pen operas in Italian for monoglot British society. Even now, arias in English seem to be a cultural error, like Finnish hip-hop or salsa from Dubai. The current Met season incorporates one opera by an American in Sanskrit (Philip Glass’s Satyagraha), another that mixes English with Chinese (Tan Dun’s The First Emperor), and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, sung in English translation for the benefit of the kids. Only Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the work that brought British opera back to life after World War II, makes an irrefutable case for the language’s singable power and lyrical efficiency. You can pack a lot of sense into a very few English words; set those words to music, and pellets of plain speech bloom. Britten made the title character a taciturn Suffolk fisherman, and also a figure of overpowering eloquence. Read the rest.

3 thoughts on “Met at the Movies: Peter Grimes (Review)

  1. Do you know about how long it is until the dvd will come out? I think the Met should have better organized around my school schedule…

  2. Judging by last year’s broadcast-DVD experience, Eugene Onegin came out in January 2008, so it’ll probably be in 2009 when everyone forgets about this opera – Met needs to get on this opportunity and do them as soon as the season is over…

  3. I saw Peter Grimes live at the Met. The review in the NY Times had a similar concern about the “structure” being very monotone throughout the whole performance, but I thought it was a very effective tool to maintain an intense and opressive atmosphere throughout the whole performance. While different stage elements may have pleased the audience looking for something more traditional, I applaud the production team for being consequent. I find your interpretation of the “opression of the working class” very interesting. What I love about this work is that it is so ambiguous and that people can come up with their own interpretations, and that that it is not clear if Peter Grimes is a victim, a a criminal, just antisocial, gay, a pedophile, or whatever. I think this production did a very good job not trying to force a point of view on the audience.

    By the way, the orchestra was amazing – the MET orchestra is a real gem.

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