Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Peter Grimes
The Princeton Festival
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of Assassins


Caroline Worra and Alex Richardson
Photo by Jessi Franko
Benjamin Britten's 1945 masterpiece Peter Grimes occupies a unique place in the history of opera. It is one of the few works of the 20th century to firmly earn a place in the standard repertory, and is considered by many to be the greatest opera ever produced by an English composer. Steven LaCrosse's exquisite production for the Princeton Festival, currently performing at McCarter Theatre Center's Matthews Theatre, perfectly illustrates why.

To explain his opera, Britten wrote that he was motivated by "the struggle of the individual against the masses." He espoused that belief that "the more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual." The opera's title character is a shy but ambitious fisherman, moored in a claustrophobic village on the English coast. The townspeople shun him by and large after his young apprentice dies while they are at sea, and he is warned not to enlist another boy to help him with his fishing. He does, however, and the town immediately begins to swell with rumors that this new child will meet the same gruesome end. Peter is crushed under the weight of his own dreams of becoming a respectable member of the society that has cast him out.

LaCrosse's production transports the opera from its historical setting in the mid-18th century to the 1930s, a period in which Britain (and much of the western world) was fearful of communist expansion and the looming World War. Most productions present the town chorus as a unified, monochromatic mob bent on Grimes' destruction; here, the townspeople are costumed (beautifully, by Marie Miller) to show differences in class and rank, with fishermen and their wives in tattered rags, and the more well-heeled families in double-breasted suits and pleated dresses. Grimes—in his oilskin and jersey knitted sweater—has never seemed more out of place.

The musical elements of the production are largely superb, with one unfortunate exception. As Grimes, tenor Alex Richardson struggled throughout the evening at the performance I attended. The role is often associated with the extraordinary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who made it one of his specialties for the better part of his long and distinguished career. Vickers was a heldentenor and when he wasn't singing Grimes, he was most often found singing Wagner and heavier Verdi roles like Otello and Radames. Richardson's voice is in this same category and at fleeting moments his voice sails over the orchestra and chills the audience. Yet he lacks the beautiful legato Vickers and others have brought to the role—the voice often sounded disconnected as it moved through the passaggio—or the floating pianissimo that can give the role of Grimes an ethereal, otherworldly quality. Because of Vickers, we often forget that the role was actually written for a Mozartean voice, with a seamless legato that many heavier tenors do not possess. Unfortunately, Richardson falls into the category of singers who probably should not be attempting this role. (By contrast, Casey Finnigan, singing the character part of Bob Boles, possesses a clarion tenor that would be perfect for Grimes).

Other artists fare better. Caroline Worra deploys flawless technique and sureness of pitch as Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher who tries to love Peter. Rarely have I heard "Embroidery in Childhood," Ellen's haunting and difficult third-act aria, sung better. Stephen Gaertner needs time to warm up as Captain Balstrode, a veteran fisherman sympathetic to Grimes' struggles, but he hits his stride by the glorious tavern scene that closes act one. The young American mezzo Eve Gigliotti makes a meal of the publican Auntie, and it is nice to hear this role, often taken by over-the-hill comprimarias, sung by an artist who still has plenty of voice. Fine work abounds from Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms (as Auntie's "nieces"), Joseph Barron (as Swallow, the town lawyer), and Sean Anderson (as Ned Keene, the apothecary).

Princeton Festival artistic director Richard Tang Yuk leads an assured, dramatic reading of the score from the pit—although the bombast he whips up occasionally covers some of the singers. He deserves special praise—along with Stanley Fink, the company's répétiteur—for the brilliantly cohesive work of the large chorus, which is so important to the success of this particular opera. Grimes the man may meet a dark end, but Peter Grimes the opera has rarely shone so brightly.

Further performances of Peter Grimes will be presented on Thursday, June 23 (7:30pm), and Sunday, June 26 (3pm). Tickets ($30-140) can be purchased online at www.mccarter.org, by phone (609-258-2787), or in person at the box office at 91 University Place, Princeton.


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