Washington Opera stages brilliant version of 'Peter Grimes'

CLEF NOTES

March 26, 2009|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Many an uncomfortable lesson about human nature lies within Benjamin Britten's 1945 operatic masterpiece, Peter Grimes, a tale of small-mindedness, conclusion-jumping and rapid swells of populist outrage in a seaside village. Those multilayered messages seem even more relevant than usual in the Washington National Opera's striking production at the Kennedy Center.

The sight of villagers brandishing prayer books as they march off to confront the outsider Grimes, singing about how they "shall strike and strike to kill," bring to mind many an outbreak of knee-jerk, cable-TV-flamed behavior in our own society.

The impulse to judge quickly and harshly is one of the biggest issues in Peter Grimes, which holds up an unflattering mirror to all of us. In it can be seen the ugly power of gossip, a power as destructive as the sea that periodically threatens the opera's villagers; the cruel price of hypocrisy; the dangerous policy of insisting that everything is black or white.

Grimes is anything but clear-cut. This fisherman is creepy and violent. Two boys die while working for him, and he's not blameless in either case. Yet, something fundamentally decent - or at least hopeful and even poetic - in Grimes draws the love of Ellen, the local schoolmarm, and the sympathy of Balstrode, an old sea captain - the only townspeople who resist the scornful majority.

That Grimes must lose his own life before we can learn his whole story or see far enough into his heart is what gives the opera its affecting tragedy.

In the Washington staging, director Paul Curran taps into that tragedy with brilliant results, aided immeasurably by Robert Innes Hopkins' sets and costumes and the atmospheric lighting of Rick Fisher.

The opera, inspired by an 1810 George Crabbe poem (Montagu Slater fashioned the vivid libretto), is set here in the 1940s, playing up the contemporary feeling of the issues involved. A few colorless buildings flank the stage to create a suitably one-sided, claustrophobic world. In a telling bit of theatricality, those structures are shaken off their very foundations by angry shouts of the Grimes-hating crowd.

The uniformly impressive cast (I attended opening night last Saturday) is headed by Christopher Ventris, a true singing actor who incisively conveys the complexity and contradictions of Grimes. A wider range of tone coloring would be welcome, but the tenor's voice has an appealing directness, his phrasing a communicative depth.

As Ellen, Patricia Racette uses her warm, clear, flexible soprano and astute acting skills to capture the character's mix of certitude and qualms. Hers is an exquisitely shaded, touching performance.

Alan Held makes a vocally and theatrically vibrant Balstrode.

The supporting roles are fleshed out with a good deal of colorful vocal and theatrical flourish. The chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, fulfills its crucial assignment with great force and flair.

The orchestra produces the score's prismatic tapestry handsomely, guided by conductor Ilan Volkov, whose strongly committed effort complements the intensity onstage and helps to honor the beauty and grit of a profound, timeless opera.

Remaining performances are Thursday, Sunday, Wednesday and April 4 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-295-2400 or go to dc-opera.org.

Some good news

We've had our share of downer stories this season. Here are just a couple of reminders that the local music scene is far from lost.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore, which had been showing signs of distress, "is still kicking after the staff and program reductions last December," reports artistic director Melinda O'Neal. Thanks to what she hails as "an unprecedented outpouring of support" from the community and choir members themselves, the ensemble will be able to complete its 2008-2009 concerts as scheduled with a performance of Haydn's Mass in Time of War on May 3 at Towson United Methodist Church. Call 410-366-6544 or go to handelchoir.org.

Although the Handel Choir had to end its children's choir program because of financial pressures, the young voices were not silenced. Supporters were able to launch the independent Baltimore Children's Choir, which will still collaborate with the Handel Choir in the future, including the May 3 program.

Meanwhile, the Young Victorian Theatre Company reminds the community that it remains "a thriving, fiscally healthy operetta company," ready to offer its 39th consecutive Gilbert and Sullivan season in July with The Pirates of Penzance at the Bryn Mawr School.

"Our endowment and reserve fund have never been invaded, and we try to remain an example of what can happen [with] sensible, careful and conservative planning," says general manager Brian Goodman.

Go to yvtc.org.

For the record

I was taken severely to task by a relative of Spiro Malas for not including that fine bass-baritone in my March 15 litany of stars who graced productions by the about-to-be-liquidated Baltimore Opera Company.

Let me hasten to give the Baltimore-born Malas his due. And, while I'm at it, I could mention the likes of Elizabeth Futral, Chris Merritt, Renata Scotto, Diana Soviero, Ruth Ann Swenson and Ruth Welting - but the list would just get too long, and too depressing.

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