John Doyle's production of Benjamin Britten's opera is grimy and grim, but not for all the right reasons.
The good news is -- that as passionately conducted by Donald Runnicles and with hulking Anthony Dean Griffey singing boomingly but never bleatingly in the title role -- the opera is intact. Though much altered in characterization from poet Crabbe's version, the sometimes raging, sometimes tender Peter Grimes is at the turbulent center of the tough moralistic drama. Britten and Slater were determined to make a strong point by depicting the devastating consequences that occur when censorious townspeople eventually drive into insanity a man known to be difficult but not without redeeming qualities.
While the besieged Grimes does receive sympathy from widow Ellen Orford (Patricia Racette, singing purely and with conviction) and the apothecary Ned Keene (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), he's up against relentless chatterboxes represented most prominently by frantic Mrs. Sedley (scene-stealing Felicity Palmer). Grimes hasn't been judged responsible for the deaths of a few previous apprentices, but he's watched closely as he takes on another boy (Logan William Erickson, silent and trembling). When the abused lad disappears, the citizens of the fishing-industry borough -- led by mayor Swallow (John Del Carlo) and retired merchant skipper Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-Moore) -- are less forgiving, and Grimes suffers dramatically.
Britten scores the outsider's brutal story with angular, often contrapuntal music that begins with agitato melodic lines that turn molto agitato as the moody Grimes' predicament intensifies. He's supplied arias -- notably the searching "What harbor shelters peace?" -- that mark a downward spiral until his final act-three outburst. Alone on stage, he has a mad scene that's enough to make Lucia di Lammermoor stop carrying on like a crazy lady and take notice. And Griffey, who throughout his performance has resembled a grown Teletubby gone haywire, sings and acts the segment with controlled abandon.
Peter Grimes would be memorable for the orchestral interludes alone. That's where Britten turns his musical notions about the restless sea into a metaphor for disturbing undercurrents in unsettled society. Also, the music for Ellen's lament about the lost boy that begins "Embroidery in childhood was a luxury of idleness" is darkly beautiful. There are countless passages delivered by the gossiping townspeople, and they, too, work their way under the skin; although in this production the problem often endemic to opera choruses predominates: unintelligibility. A pity, since it's the damaging power of these masses that Britten and Slater are damning.
Besides not getting the chorus into maximum articulating shape -- a job requirement shared by chorus master Donald Palumbo -- Doyle has made a besetting mistake with the set he's requested from Scott Pask. At first glance, its wall of gloomy shanty facades seems like one of Louis Nevelson's black-painted wood sculptures. When the many doors and windows on it flap open so singers can appear to vent their musical spleen, the looming wall takes on the look of an advent calendar. The truly unfortunate overall effect, though, is that until the last moments, the opera is played entirely downstage, as if Doyle thinks he's presenting an oratorio. Clearly, he wants to underline the oppressiveness of a community closing in on an individual, but the conceit is more convincing in theory than in practice.