"Peter Grimes" at the Octoplex

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.
As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull
The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.
They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
Robert Frost (1936)

There is a fleeting, awkward moment in the first scene in act one of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”, when the inhabitants of The Borough are assembled on the waterfront at dawn. After greetings to principals and petty gossip, sniping, and customary gentilities, there sounds an abrupt discord in the orchestra. Wise old Captain Balstrode squints out to sea and describes the storm that is brewing: “…the wind is holding back the tide. If it veers ‘round, watch for your lives.”

In the Prologue that precedes this first scene there is a similar parade of main characters that introduced each to the audience. There, in a makeshift courtroom, a hearing is underway to determine the cause of death of Grimes’ apprentice. Each principal is called to give testimony and each reveals more about his own character and motivation than about the incident in question. So there is a redundancy in the opening scenes, with all of the principals identified by name, and relations between them depicted in brief exchanges. Then, in the second “introduction”, the subject of the weather is abruptly brought up, announced by the melodramatic chord in the oboes. The placement makes “The Storm” another character in the story and the portentous chord seems a little obvious.

The Storm arrives on stage in the second scene, with Balstrode and Grimes shouting defiantly into the wind as the rest of the cast heads for cover. Balstrode urges Grimes to leave The Borough, or at least, marry Ellen, the widowed schoolmarm who cares for him. Grimes rejects the first suggestion - The Borough is home and these people, as petty, narrow and dismissive as they are, are his people. As for the second, Grimes seems to want to achieve some kind of commercial success and status, to beat the townspeople at their own game and win their approval, before settling down with Ellen. As the storm music builds in the orchestra, he sings the soaring phrase: “Her heart is harbor, too, where night is turned to day.”

According to Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, women in the fishing village have an assigned role: to be the opposite of life at sea for the men. In a later scene, Ellen, Auntie (the proprietress of “The Boar”, the local pub), and Auntie’s two “nieces” sing an ensemble in reaction to being dismissed by the men from the important business of the community. Auntie asks: “And need we be ashamed because we comfort men from ugliness?” And the four join in the refrain: “Do we smile or do we weep or wait quietly ‘til they sleep?”

Well, one has to make allowances. This is opera, after all, and things have to be baldly stated in the lyrics, much as one attempts to be poetic, because it all goes by pretty fast, even when the tempo is languid. More important, Britten and Slater were two gay men trying to write about heterosexual relationships and the best model that they seem to have had is their own relationships with their mums. So, even the young prostitutes assume a maternal role in the ensemble. It is, however, the most sublime music in the opera.

Similarly, Grimes repeatedly refers to Ellen as a refuge from the vicissitudes of life. Love, companionship, community - all forms of human interrelating, but especially love, are the opposite of “The Storm” - life, with all of its contrariness, isolation, cruelty, pain and death. The storm/life metaphor was easy to read in the recent Metropolitan Opera production.

On Saturday, March 15, I sat in a movie theater in North Canton, Ohio, watching the Met HD live broadcast of the matinee performance, and, often, found myself sobbing uncontrollably. The meaning of tears as a symbol and signal in the perception of art is a subject I want to explore in detail sometime, because tears do seem to represent some deeper level of perception in the aesthetic experience. But for now, I’ll isolate some of the thoughts and feelings that flowed with the tears.

I was so grateful for the opportunity to finally see a staged production of this opera. I first encountered it thirty-five years ago, and only now was I seeing it performed, and that by virtue of the miracle of digital technology and the entrepreneurial vision of Peter Gelb at the Met who thought of the idea to broadcast live to movie houses around the globe.

I was grateful to hear it so well played and sung. The Met Orchestra is a crack group, led here by the formidable Donald Runnicles, and the engineering was worthy of the great musicianship at play in the execution of the score. The sound was deep, rich, well balanced, beautifully mixed and it was thrilling to hear Britten’s complex textures and colors performed live. Much as I admire film scores, studio orchestras and film composers working today, Britten’s score takes things to another level altogether and to hear it sound so spectacular in real time was deeply gratifying. I have always found Britten’s music to be arresting and profoundly expressive, and the artistry also inspired tears.

The voices were spectacular. Patricia Racette’s Ellen Orford was a warm and vibrant mezzo, Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Ned Keane) both have commanding baritones and Bob Boles’ ringing tenor (as sung by Greg Fedderly) made his ringing, judgmental inveighings entirely earnest and credible. The title role was played by Anthony Dean Griffey, a young man of towering physical presence. His voice is exquisite for its combination of intelligence, power and lyricism.

The chorus is given a unique role in this opera, being more than mere extras for crowd scenes and massed vocal textures. They are another character on stage that relates to the named principals, musically and dramatically. Indeed, the provincialism and gossip of the residents of The Borough is as much a force in the story as is the storm. The Met Chorus sounded splendid and impressively tight even in the rhythmically tricky sea chantey “Old Joe has gone fishing”. The camera gave us glimpses of characters and actual acting taking place within the ranks of the Met Chorus, lending depth and texture to the dramatic action.

This brings up some complaints I have with aspects of the Met production. I wished that the stage had not been so flat - some platforms to either side downstage would have lent some verticality to the crowd scenes and allowed the audience to see more of the characters being played in the chorus.
The weathered wooden wall served as a good backdrop and a blank, unyielding exterior against which the drama was played. Doorways and windows opened to provide narrow frames in which characters appeared - an image of the lives being lived behind the shuttered windows of the homes in The Borough. However, the same wall was made to serve as the interior of The Boar and I wished someone had thought that out more to make it seem less perfunctory and merely cost-effective.
As good, overall, as the acting was, I felt that there was much that could have been filled out in the character of Griffey’s Grime. In scene two, he comes into the pub from the storm looking none the worse for wear (when the libretto calls for him to look particularly disheveled and mad). The powerfully poetic and lyrical “Now as the Great Bear and Pleaides…” should be a glimpse of Grimes the visionary poet as he sings to himself over a pint at the bar. In the negative space of the too-improvised Boar interior and with the chorus sitting at his elbow, the aria had no particular effect because the set up and the staging seemed prosaic.

What if the chorus had frozen and Griffey was able to wander among them, musing aloud on mortality, regret and loneliness, trying to make eye contact with this one or that, before returning to his drink and concluding the soliloquy? The sporadic choral entrances (”He’s mad or drunk.”) that follow would be perfect music to reanimate the chorus and for time to move on.

Grimes is a cantankerous protagonist, and there is much about him that is ambiguous. It’s never clear whether he is culpable in the death of the apprentice and his relations with the replacement later in the story veer from caustically abusive to somewhat parental to something vaguely pedophilic. (That impression may stem from the knowledge that Britten was particularly attracted to young boys. A little research online reveals that pederasty was alluded to in initial drafts of the libretto.) One thing that is quite clear about Grimes, however, is that he is lonely. Even as he dismisses The Borough and its inhabitants, he feels a link with the place and its people and wants their acceptance. And, yes, he longs for that special, defining relationship with Ellen.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s Grimes seems too young for Ellen Orford and its hard to glimpse what they see in each other. On the other hand, she and the dapper Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-Moore - we are in the land of the Three-Named People) would seem to have a promising future as they stand together on the beach as Grimes sails off to suicide.

Seeing the opera brought back memories with vividness and I realized why this rather simple story grabbed me as a lovelorn high school senior. It is about loneliness, really, and it dramatized a too familiar reality. For all of its overwrought sentiment about male/female relationships, the yearnings of Grimes voiced my own longings then and now. That the story ends with his suicide only heightens the tragedy of loneliness and dreams denied.

The Message: Storm and Sea
In the end, it was the storm that impressed me the most. The metaphor prompted thoughts - these poor characters, stuck in their fishing village, seeing life as a dangerous, fearful experience, and thwarted in their bids for happiness through meaningful relationships. It’s the paranoid’s view of the human condition that sees one as being victimized by life. But if one keeps in mind that Britten and his circle were gay men in a society that prosecuted homosexuality, the metaphor becomes less easy to dismiss. A loving relationship appeared as a dreamy paradise and society and all of life outside of that relationship were threats to that vision of happiness in 1940’s Britain. I was vividly reminded of a storm I witnessed on a previous March 15, and its portent of threat to a harbor I had found.

And at the conclusion, there is Britten’s music, with its lingering gestures depicting the ceaseless motions of the sea and of time, and the large themes of love, isolation, loneliness, death and regret.

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