Peter Grimes - A Story in Shades of Sea Gray

Allan Clayton, photo @ Richard Termine

There are times when the Met is half-empty and the audience is tepid and I understand why. I've been to my share of tired warhorse revivals where everyone onstage looks like they are waiting for direct deposit to clear. And then there's times when the half-empty houses are depressing, because what is happening onstage is absolutely worth seeing. Last night was one of those nights -- the revival of Britten's Peter Grimes (the Met's first revival since the 2008 inauguration of the John Doyle production) was gripping from curtain to curtain. 

Allan Clayton was tremendous in the title role. He's a beefy, burly guy who looks the part of a blue collar fisherman. His Grimes' is obviously a troubled man -- his eyes are always darting around the stage, his body language both terrifying and terrified. But his voice is surprisingly dreamy and luminous, so when he sings "In Dreams I've Built" you truly believe this Grimes has a sensitive, poetic side. The tenor also has the requisite power for the third act mad scene.

There's ambiguity about how much of Grimes' abuse of his apprentices is deliberate, and how much is negligence. Clayton leans into this ambiguity. He is convincing when singing to Ellen Orford about building a better life, but when he hits both Ellen and his new apprentice John, we can totally believe that he is an abuser.

Nicole Car and Allan Clayton, photo @ Richard Termine
Nicole Car was also excellent as Ellen Orford. Her soprano is bright and pure, and it soared above the harsh condemnations of the Borough. Her Embroidery aria was lovely. Dramatically she played Ellen rather straight, without any of the sadomasochism that one might suspect with this character.

Adam Platchetka was not as gripping as Balstrode. What are Balstrode's motives? Who is he? Platchetka did not give us answers. His final directive to Grimes to drown himself at sea was said with no emotion. Maybe that was an artistic choice, but it also made the moment somewhat flat emotionally. 

Denyce Graves, photo @ Richard Termine
The various characters of the Borough were mostly well-cast, with one unfortunate exception. Denyce Graves (Auntie) was in perilous vocal condition. Her voice sounded alternately raspy and squeaky, and there is no vocal tone to speak of. She did not come out for a curtain call at the end of the opera. I really enjoyed Tony Stevenson as the lecherous Reverend Horace Adams. 

The Borough townspeople (the Met chorus) were incredible. Donald Palumbo and conductor Nicholas Carter made them sound terrifying -- implacable, judgmental, merciless.

John Doyle's unit set, photo @ Richard Termine
John Doyle's production is maybe a reason Grimes isn't selling well. It's a dull production that works against the drama of the opera. The stage is dominated by a huge wooden wall. Windows and doors open in the wall, and sometimes the wall is upstage, sometimes it's downstage, and during the four gorgeous sea interludes waves are projected on the wall. While the townspeople popping through the doors to sing through the windows gives Grimes' world a claustrophobic fear, after awhile the lack of stage direction made this look like a concert opera. Apprentice John's death was particularly poorly staged -- the stage directions are he falls from a cliff. In the Doyle production he simply disappears through a trap door.

But still, this opera should be seen. I've actually never met any opera lover who wasn't blown away by Peter Grimes -- the ambiguity of the title character is unlike any other opera in the canon. And Allan Clayton is excellent. There are six more performances and plenty of cheap seats are available. Go Sea It! 


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