Let’s call it “Peter Grimes: The Concert Version.” In his Metropolitan Opera debut, director John Doyle brings his minimalist bag of tricks to the big stage, having already shown audiences how he can enlist one performer to do two or more jobs (act, sing and play a musical instrument) in recent Broadway revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” Fortunately for Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Doyle leaves the musicians in the pit where they belong, but otherwise shows himself to be the master of self-imposed restrictions.
On the evidence of these three Gotham productions, as well as last season’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” at L.A. Opera, it’s clear Doyle isn’t big on blocking, stage business (once he rids his actors of playing, say, the tuba), gesture or the establishment of time and place. In other words, he’s really not much of a storyteller.
In the Met program notes, Doyle writes that ” ‘Peter Grimes’ is a story of a man who is shut out by his community, a community that judges him vehemently and aggressively.” It’s no wonder this Suffolk town has a little problem with its ornery fisherman: His young male apprentices keep dying on him.
The big problem here is that, under Doyle’s direction, the villagers are almost indistinguishable from one another. (A notable exception is the gossip Mrs. Sedley, who, as played by Felicity Palmer, appears to be channeling Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch.) And worse, there’s no town there. Doyle crams the choristers downstage between the orchestra pit and Scott Pask’s monolithic black wall of a set, leaving no room for movement.
At L.A. Opera, Doyle’s big flourish was to have the “Mahagonny” chorus march around in a file, like fugitives from some jail yard in an old Warner Bros. gangster movie. The director repeats that move early in “Grimes,” then abandons it in favor of his usual restraint. Despite much stage time, the chorus members stand, they sit, they look glum. Period.
With “Mahagonny,” Doyle entertained the L.A. booboisie with Route 666 road signs and an act-one finale replicating a Nazi war rally. At first glance, those puerile touches are absent from “Peter Grimes.” Pask’s unit set and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes make for a very tasteful affair, if your idea of tasteful is the color black.
Doyle’s “Grimes,” however, begins to develop its own kitschiness after three hours of exposure: Pask’s huge, rough-hewn wooden wall features several elevated doors and windows that open to expose various supporting players who sing nasty epithets at Grimes throughout the opera from their elevated perches. But after so much opening and closing, these same doors and windows begin to lend a farcical air to the proceedings. Ultimately, the monolith resembles nothing so much as a large-scale curio display in which one could stuff beloved tchotchkes.
Doyle’s storytelling powers fail completely when, in the final scene, he divorces the crazed title character from his beloved Ellen (Patricia Racette) by placing her in a doorway behind him, two stories up. Earlier in the opera, it is unclear how the boy (Logan William Erickson) dies. In the libretto, he falls off a cliff; in this production, he conveniently disappears, without much impact, into a hole in the stage meant to represent the sea, one assumes.
To Met audiences of a certain age, Grimes belongs to the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who presented a wounded beast of a man. Unleashing a craggy, dramatic sound, he gave Britten’s antihero a feral force that made operagoers forget, for a moment, that they never heard Chaliapin live.
Anthony Dean Griffey possesses a fine lyric tenor, one that recalls Britten’s longtime companion, Peter Pears, who originated the Grimes role in 1945. Griffey’s sound is actually fuller, less dry. But unlike Pears, he pushes the role’s big moments, and his voice, rather than gaining in power, turns gruff, breathy, unsupported. Racette offers a worn-sounding Ellen.
But close your eyes, and the chorus sounds glorious, and under Donald Runnicles’ baton, the Met orchestra makes the sun, the sea and the tragedy come alive.