Sunday, February 26, 2017

Indiana University mounts a solid, atmospheric and fully engaged production of Benjamin Britten's masterpiece

Richard Smagur as the defiant, isolated fisherman Peter Grimes.
In an especially poignant passage in Alban Berg's "Wozzeck," an opera Benjamin Britten admired and pondered while composing "Peter Grimes," the title character  muses aloud that when he and others of his class enter heaven, they will probably have to lend a hand with the thunder. He's a common soldier dominated by a nagging captain and a crackpot doctor, and like Grimes, he's destined for a tragic end.

But Britten's hero thinks very little about his fate in heaven, and regards thunder and its attendant meteorological challenges as well beyond his control, either in this life or the one to come. That's conventional wisdom for seafaring communities. The rough fisherman that librettist Montagu Slater fashioned from the sadist in George Crabbe's poem "The Borough" finds the suspicion he arouses in his fellow citizens as implacable as any natural foe. He is less deserving of his outcast status than the town is guilty of its susceptibility to prejudice and half-truths. Both his status and the English fishing village's guilt prove durable.

Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's new production of "Peter Grimes," one of a mere handful of operas premiered since World War II to have entered the international repertoire, emphasizes the firmness of the Borough's hostility to the coarse, hulking Grimes, a near-hermit nursing outsize ambitions and scornful of his neighbors' tattling narrow-mindedness. The opera skillfully sketches the peculiarity of certain inhabitants — the drug-dependent town gossip Mrs. Sedley, the hypocritical Methodist scold Mr. Boles among them — but any individuality must normally be subsumed in conformity.

Stage director Chris Alexander underlines the collective excellence of Walter Huff's large chorus by having the villagers gesture and react in coordinated fashion. Starting with the Prologue, an inquest into the death at sea of Grimes' boy apprentice, the chorus moves as a unit. Where there is hubbub, it's unanimous, down to shushing an interruption of the coroner Swallow's assumed formality. Grimes' bitterness about the procedure is immediately evident as the groundwork of his demise is laid. In a later scene, the villagers frolic somewhat grotesquely, briefly breaking out of their regimentation, to move about the stage like figures in a Bruegel painting.

Alexander occasionally moves the villagers as a massed unit down to the lip of the stage, nowhere more impressively than in the magnificent Handelian chorus "Who holds himself apart" in Act 3, capped by a shift in Patrick Mero's lighting design that throws their shadows upon the background. We are meant to see, as his allies Ellen Orford and Captain Balstrode remind him, that Grimes can't expect to win over the Borough, whose perennial existence is ruled by the uneasy truce daily life must make with the ungovernable sea on which all depend. The final chorus reinforces that creed, as the sighting of a sinking boat, unreachable, is obliviously taken as just another rumor. The Borough has defended itself on its own terms.

As seen Saturday night, there was more than physical stature to put the title character in bold relief against his social background. Richard Smagur displayed a voice that soared and raged, a glowing tenor that remained firm yet revealing of Grimes' anguish. His physical carriage made him appear to loom over his fellows even while steadily sinking under the weight of lifelong disappointment and alienation.

The social stratification that arouses unambiguous sympathy for the plight of Berg's Wozzeck is not part of Grimes' burden, since the Borough hierarchy is minimal. His failings, which Smagur represented well, are bound up in a quest for success beyond the Borough norm. The apprentice death under investigation has stemmed from an attempt to get rich from a London sale. The long voyage was stymied by bad weather and the exhaustion of the water supply amid an abundance of caught fish.

"What harbour shelters peace" and "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades," the two numbers for the tenor lead that characterize his abiding loneliness, were performed with feeling and clarity Saturday night. But crowning Smagur's fitness for the role was the mad scene, a tour de force both vocally and dramatically. He showed that the fisherman's rage and self-pity, so evident before, were a spent force, and only his despair was left. Lyrical pathos proved just as much the tenor's strong suit as what Smagur had evinced earlier, when Grimes' vaunting demon was in charge. (The production in the Musical Arts Center is double-cast; a different cast will be on hand Friday, and the one I saw will appear in the final performance March 4.)

Ellen Orford (Christina Nicastro) in a typical position vis-a-vis townspeople suspicious of her defense of Grimes
A stroke of genius during the mad scene involved the supertitles. In a use of technology to reinforce operatic meaning,  the screen goes blank for the first time (excepting the atmospheric orchestral interludes). Suddenly, even if we had only occasionally glanced up at the projected text, we were at one with Peter Grimes in his miserable isolation. The Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk now includes judicious supertitle suspension.The scene was played behind a scrim, uniting the seaside fog with the fisherman's mental distraction.

Vincent Festa as the self-styled evangelist Boles.
Bucking the town's congealing rejection of Grimes are the widow Ellen and the retired merchant-marine officer Balstrode. Christina Nicastro sang the sympathetic role with the necessary patience and ardor. Her aria "Embroidery in childhood" was rich in retrospective lilt. It was matched, partly through sensitive staging, by her earlier implied rebuke to the townspeople applying Jesus' warning against sinners casting the first stone. As she sang in gentle self-justification, the citizens who had confronted her gradually pealed away,  impervious to her argument, leaving her alone.

Balstrode was stirringly played as a plausible moderating influence on his fellow citizens, as well as the only man with a chance of checking Grimes' drift toward doom, by Daniel Narducci. Of the other male roles, I found particularly vivid Vincent Festa's characterization of the feverish Bob Boles, no subscriber to the Methodist temperance pledge in one amusing scene, but otherwise boiling over with jeremiads against the official piety represented by the rector Adams (Thomas Drew). In the silent roles, Mitchell Jones as the inebriated Dr. Crabbe displayed the acrobatic proprioception of the great silent-film comedians; Niccolo Miles was the hapless, brutalized apprentice, cowering competently but without the continual trembling, even shuddering, that would best have suited a portrayal of pure victimization.

Mairi Irene McCormack projected both the neediness and drug dependency of Mrs. Sedley, a widow standing for the opposite effect of widowhood from the charitable spirit Ellen Orford embodies. McCormack's mezzo-soprano could have used more "bite" and penetration, though she reflected the gossip's meanness well. Another mezzo, Gedeane Graham, was a bulwark of bluff accommodation and business savvy as the publican "Auntie," with Rebekah Howell and Therese Pircon as her Tweedledee/Tweedledum "nieces."

Auntie,  Nieces and Ellen Orford sing of the trials the men in their lives subject them to.
Among the sweet respites from the rush toward vigilante justice was when these three singers joined with Nicastro in what is effectively a trio (the "nieces" sing mostly in unison) bidding farewell to the headstrong male posse. "From the gutter, why should we trouble," with a barcarole-like accompaniment dominated by flutes, is a conscious descendant of the sublime "Soave sia il vento" in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

This was among the highlights of Arthur Fagen's conducting. So were the famous interludes, four of them known separately to concert audiences. The fulcrum of these wordless representations of the unfolding action is the Passacaglia, named for the form in which a short, repeating pattern in the bass is subjected to variation above it. It's perfect to represent what abides in the human and natural setting of "Peter Grimes," while the variations — starting with a viola solo, beautifully rendered Saturday night — sketch in the emotional turmoil overlaid upon the Borough's complacent foundation.

The late Robert O'Hearn's wonderful set and costume designs are revived for this production. They are evocative without clutter or overemphasis. The way the simple buildings seem to squat, embedded in their shore neighborhood shoulder to shoulder, suggests coziness and an ethos of self-protection. I'm not sure why the program places the action "at the end of the nineteenth century" when the original setting is tersely described as "toward 1830." I didn't detect any updating in this production.

The costumes look inspired by the pioneering early Victorian photography of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson — including the charming fashion detail that rough-and-tumble English fishermen sometimes favored stovepipe hats. There was no evidence in the production's lighting that electricity had come to the Borough, though that may have been still true in the late 19th century. I'm no expert, but it certainly appeared as if O'Hearn had centered his vision of the show in the period the libretto stipulates. Even the mocking of Boles' anti-establishment Methodism seems more at home in the 1830s than the 1890s.

In any case, the provincial grip that small communities everywhere have on larger-than-life misfits is a timeless theme that could hardly be more memorably handled on the opera stage — both by Britten and Slater as well as by this stunning production.