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Few operas generate such lively and analytical discussion as Benjamin Britten’s 1945 work Peter Grimes. This is no moth-eaten, conventional operatic tale about a lovesick tenor and a fragile soprano. Ostensibly, the story centers on a lone-wolf fisherman, Peter Grimes, who’s accused of abusing, and possibly murdering, his young apprentices. The gossipy townsfolk in the fishing village band together and hector him, eventually driving him mad and to suicide.
But the real meaning of the opera, which was inspired by George Crabbe’s 1810 poem "The Borough," continues to be a subject of debate. Is it about how society marginalizes and debases the individual? Is it an attack on hypocrisy? The community reviles Grimes for supposed crimes (there’s a vague suggestion of sexual as well as physical abuse).
The residents, however, are themselves tainted by vice. Mrs. Sedley, the self-righteous ringleader, is an opium addict. The local pub is a haunt of prostitution, and even the boozed-up preacher wants in on the action. Or is the opera in some indirect way a reflection of how Britten, a homosexual pacifist with socialist leanings, felt about how society mistreated him?
As interesting as these theories are – and all are tenable – the music of Peter Grimes is often given short shrift. Not so in Michigan Opera Theatre’s brooding and sometimes gripping account, in which the sounds emanating from the pit are the most gratifying component of this production.
Conductor John Mauceri’s exacting work whipping the orchestra into shape is impressive. Mauceri’s prowess on the MOT podium stood out a few years ago in another "sea opera," Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.
In Grimes, the ocean is virtually another character. The music imitates the sea in its swishing, ebbing and flowing movement, and the menacing, dark rumblings from the lower strings and percussion. The sea is paramount in the opera; after all, it provides Peter Grimes with his livelihood, but it also claims his life when he deliberately sinks his boat. Orchestral extracts from the opera, titled "Sea Interludes," frequently find their way onto symphonic programs.
Last Saturday night, Mauceri inspired some superb ensemble playing from the orchestra. The woodwinds and strings were particularly nimble, and the restive score’s shifting rhythms were nailed down with aplomb. Mauceri stressed the score’s moody colors, which underscored what was occurring onstage.
Director Bernard Uzan sets the right tone, but one wishes he would have extracted more subtlety from the principals. In the title role, tenor Mark Baker turns out a commendable performance overall, but he holds his emotion in check, to the detriment of his character’s development. When he goes mad in the third act, the transformation seems too abrupt, when it should be the culmination of mounting emotional pain and persecution. Baker has the requisite ample-sized instrument for the part, but his voice is iffy in the upper register, where some cracks were audible.
Neither hero nor anti-hero, Grimes is a difficult part to pull off because he doesn’t elicit sympathy, but he isn’t exactly unlikable, either. Baker’s finest moment vocally came in the second scene of Act One, when he delivered a haunting "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades."
Soprano Sheri Greenawald is sympathetic without being cloying as Peter’s friend, Ellen. Her scenes with the young apprentice (a timid, nonsinging role played appropriately by Dennis Strach) were affecting, and her top notes gleamed.
Captain Balsrtode, the voice of reason in the mob, is played by Australian baritone Jeffrey Black. His acting tends to be stiff, but his effulgent voice is limpid and focused. Mezzo-soprano Candace De Lattre needs to inject more sanctimonious arrogance into her portrayal as the meddlesome Mrs. Sedley, but her vocal delivery is on target.
Carl Toms’ sets are appropriately craggy and bleak, and Christine Solger-Binder’s crepuscular lighting is fitting. Kudos to Suzanne Mallare Acton, who coaxed some fine work from the large chorus.
Musically more than dramatically, this Peter Grimes has frequent moments of real urgency and polish.
John Mac Master alternates in the title role June 9 and 11.
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