Anthony Dean Griffey stood on the vast stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, leaning ever so slightly to his right, looking out to the auditorium and beyond it to the sea. Condemned by the citizens of The Borough, he collapsed as if he had been split in two.
Misfit or monster? Perhaps both.
Each audience member will have to make his own judgment at the Met's new production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes," the company's first in 41 years. The staging by John Doyle, who directed reinterpretations of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and "Company" on Broadway, is a driven, intense evening of opera as theater that leaves Grimes' essence ambiguous.
"Grimes" is a dark work, with themes of ostracism and vengeance, and undertones of child abuse and homophobia. It is a tough sell _ there were empty seats at Thursday night's opening and plenty of tickets are available for the remaining six performances, including the March 15 matinee that will be simulcast to theaters worldwide.
Yet, the tale of the iconoclast fisherman is the most powerful opera written since World War II, and Griffey's fascinating performance should not be missed. Peter Pears, Britten's partner, originated the role in 1947 and Jon Vickers owned it for two decades with an angry, twitching interpretation that Britten was said to have disliked.
Griffey shows fits of anger, slapping Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmistress whom he hopes to marry, and locking his arm around the neck of John, his replacement apprentice. He alternates love and anger, as if he were bipolar before ultimately cracking up after John slips and dies.
With a sweet tone and soaring voice, and sweat dripping down his bearded face onto his gray sweater, Griffey brought to mind his portrayal nearly a decade ago of another outsider, Lennie in Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men."
Wanting to replace Tyrone Guthrie's 1967 staging, which was mounted for Vickers, the Met originally planned a co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival that was directed by Trevor Nunn. After that version was mounted in 2005, the Met switched course and hired Doyle. Then the Met parted ways with the original star, Neil Shicoff, and turned to Griffey.
A dark wooden wall that rises to the proscenium 54 feet (16.5 meters) above the stage is Scott Pask's central set for the prologue and all three acts. The wall moves back and forth in sections to depict town hall, the city, the Boar Inn and Grimes' hut, and it often serves as a huge barrier between the distrusted Grimes and his neighbors.
Based on a poem by George Crabbe, the opera begins with an inquest that determines Grimes' first apprentice, William Spode, died of "accidental circumstances." Grimes and Orford sing "Here is a friend," but as they leave the stage on opposite sides, they shoot each other unnerving cold looks
Doyle misfires only at the end _ when the set is being pulled back for the final scene, in which the village people watch Grimes' boat sink, the noise from the set movement breaks the mood of Britten's shimmering music evoking the sea and birds, which reprises the first of Britten's famous Sea Interludes. For the final moments, about two dozen men, women and children in modern black dress were on a scaffold at the back of the stage looking on, with bright light behind them _ they looked as if they were posing for a Gap ad. What was the point? That the story is timeless?
Griffey was surrounded by a strong supporting cast led by Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford. Dressed by Ann Hould-Ward as a suffragette, she alternated warmth and wariness, and comes off as somewhat detached. She sets the tone for the evening when she sings to the town: "Let her among you without fault cast the first stone."
Both Griffey and Racette went out of their way to be precise in their diction of Montagu Slater's libretto.
With mutton chops, John Del Carlo was pompous yet authoritative as Swallow, the town lawyer. Anthony Michaels-Moore was chilling as Captain Balstrode when he told Grimes to "Sail out till you lose sight of land, then sink the boat. D'you hear? Sink her. Goodbye, Peter." Felicity Palmer was a caricature of a ninny as Mrs. Sedley.
Leah Partridge made her Met debut and sang sweetly with Erin Morley as the two nieces, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes made his Met debut as Ned Keane. Completing the cast were Dean Peterson (Hobson), Jill Grove (Auntie), Greg Fedderly (Bob Boles) and Bernard Fitch (Rev. Horace Adams).
As big a star as Griffey was the chorus, which in its vicious condemnation of Grimes serves as a model for an oppressive majority. Lined across the stage, appearing monolithic in black clothes with dark green jackets, it lent a haunting mood, and the singing was outstanding.
Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, a rare lefty on the podium, made Britten's magical score shimmer.
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