Benjamin Britten's opera, conducted by Arthur Fagen with stage direction by...and design by ...
IU Musical Arts Center
Feb 24-25 and Mar 3-4, 2017
IU Opera Theater brings a complex hero and a small fishing village with its big and little secrets to life in a powerfully sung, played and acted production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes
As the opera opens Peter is in court being tried in the case of an apprentice who died at sea when they ran out of water and ran into a headwind. The death is ruled accidental, but the town murmurs. Mothers keep their children in line by threatening that they’ll be given to Peter Grimes.
Peter, sung with power, beauty and variety on Saturday by Richard Smagur is a multifaceted character. He’s, blunt, a recluse who’s capable of great anger and also of his dreams and our pity.
Paired with Peter is another outsider. Ellen Orford is a widowed woman, a poor school teacher. In Christina Nicastro’s sympathetic portrait, she seeks to be a counselor to Peter and yet becomes an enabler. Frequently she rose to match Smagur in duets.
The IU production features the evocative sets and costume of Robert O’Hearn with a court room, complicated open sea side setting, the expansive Boar Tavern and Peter’s intimate hut. Stage director Chris Alexander masterfully uses the large chorus and the individual actors for the drama with Patrick Mero’s lighting helping.
The town folk of Benjamin Britten’s opera are fascinating lot. For the court prologue Jeremey Gussin presides as the dignifiedly robed judge Swallow. In a comic moment in a later act we see him running from the town square with his trousers around his ankles. In that brief but packed opening scene we also meet Mairi Irene McCormack as Mrs. Sedley, the town prude, gossip and laudanum addict. Justin Brunette appears as Ned Keene, the town apothecary, quack doctor and Sedley’s source. Julian Morris, sing the part of Hobson a court officer. He’s also the carter who brings Mrs. Sedley her laudanum and Peter Grimes’, doomed apprentice, Niccolo Miles.
Following the first of the opera’s four orchestral interludes the curtain opens on the busy scene at the sea side. All of the chorus members and featured players have their roles and their bits of business. The detail is really impressive. Peter comes ashore and despite an oncoming storm few in the town are willing to help him beach his boat.
Following a stormy interlude, the curtain rose on the town’s crowded tavern. Gedeane Graham was the formidable Auntie of the Boar Tavern. Rebekah Howell and Therese Pircon were sprightly as the rotating pair of girls that the town calls Aunt’s nieces. Fisherman Bob Boles sung by Vincent Festa is by day a Methodist spouting populist and by night a drunken lothario roughly pursuing the girls. As tensions in the bar build Ned Keene strikes up a song that going as a round until it’s dramatically and musically interrupted when Peter comes for his apprentice.
The second act of Peter Grimes begins with the orchestra playing the Sunday Morning interlude. Ellen visits with Peter’s apprentice. Sounds of the choir from the church are nicely balanced with the stage dialogue and all is peaceful until a frustrated Peter actually strikes Ellen and the congregation leaving the church is whipped into a drum led mob to travel to Peter’s hut. As they approach, Peter prepares to lower his apprentice to the beach, but the boy falls to his death and Peter escapes.
Following a moonlight interlude, the scene is an energetic dance, but one that’s a back drop for the discovery that the apprentice has died and another mob disperses to Peter’s hut. Meanwhile a maddened Grimes appears and in a potent scene he refuses Ellen’s efforts to calm him. Peter’s other counselor is the retired fisherman Balstrode, Daniel Narducci. I haven’t mentioned Balstrode before. He’s a respected member of the community and central figure. It’s Balstrode who helps Peter beach his boat. Balstrode who speaks against believing in rumors about him. Balstrode who in the first march to Peter’s hut describes it quite calmly as being neatly appointed. And it’s Balstrode who tells Peter to take his boat out and sink it.
In a final scene at the seas side an almost lackadaisical calm prevails. People notice that there is a boat far out that seems to be sinking, they quickly retreat to their own concerns.
Throughout the opera stage director Chris Alexander uses the chorus as a harsh prejudiced condemning force and he uses them individually and in groups for vocal and visual effect. Chorus Master Walter Huff has them in fine form and combined with the sensitive balances of conductor Arthur Fagen there were many memorable moments.
IU Opera Theater’s stunning production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes has final performance Friday and Saturday March 3rd and 4th in the Musical Arts Center
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker