The Key to Enjoying HGO's Peter Grimes? Listen; Don't Look.
The Setup: You can smell the sea in Benjamin Britten's first international opera hit (1945). It's as much a part of the drama as any character, and the tone poems that begin each scene are masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire, catching the indifferent sea at dawn, in raging storm, at twilight, in deep fog.
The Execution: Maestro Patrick Summers imbues each with potent majesty and drama. The moods match what's happening on stage to outsider Grimes -- except in this production shanghaied from Australia and directed by Neil Armfield.
Instead of the mighty sea of our imagination made visible by Britten's evocative aural painting, we have to endure the sight of choristers setting up chairs and tables for the subsequent scene. This ineffectual staging takes place inside what looks like a drab middle school auditorium, with a stage at one end and lots of doors on each side. It's a far cry from an English fishing village, and the place neither enlightens nor deepens Montagu Slater's impressionistic libretto. This busy interruption to Britten's glorious music is an outright affront and terribly disrespectful. But try telling that to an opera director.
If you want to hear this opera with these particular singers -- and you should -- you've got to grit your teeth and close your eyes, for there isn't a better Grimes around these days than Anthony Dean Griffey. With his blond wispy hair, baby face and extra-large size, he's got our attention and sympathy from his entrance. His Grimes is an overgrown child, and his traumatic outbursts and sadistic treatment of his boy apprentices, while never condoned, are somewhat ameliorated because he seems like he's still one of them. But he's definitely an outsider among this hard-working, hard-drinking Deadliest Catch-type community. The townsfolk are wonderfully limned: gruff but sympathetic Balstrode (Christopher Purves); opportunistic madam and worldly pub keeper Auntie (Meredith Arwady); aloof but observant Ned Keene (Liam Bonner). Pathetically in love with Grimes, local teacher Ellen Orford (Katie Van Kooten) enables him to hire another apprentice after the mysterious death of the first. She shares Grimes's dream of a safe, middleclass existence, but is powerless to help him attain it. Grimes may be a lost soul on land, but he sails mightily in Britten's salty masterpiece.
(Through November 12. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. Tickets here.)
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