There may be no more haunting work in opera than Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” the story of an outsider accused twice of murder by his community. It has been called the greatest British opera that has ever been written by director Keith Warner, who helmed Oper Frankfurt’s current production of this spellbinding work.
“Peter Grimes” is based on an early 19th-century poem from a book by Englishman George Crabbe. Britten was in California when he read Crabbe’s book and Grimes’ descent into madness affected the composer. Britten chose Montagu Slater as the librettist and together they opted to change Crabbe’s characterization of the title role.
In Crabbe’s telling, Grimes was a despicable man – a fisherman who took on younger apprentices who disappeared time and time again. Peter Grimes rhymes with crimes and was definitely a grimy individual who was part of the landscape for an isolated seaside town.
Britten opted for a different kind of man, a Grimes who is quite possibly truly innocent yet ostracized by the community at large regardless. It requires a strong performer for the role of Grimes, and this Oper Frankfurt production hit the lottery with Vincent Wolfsteiner.
The German tenor – whose Twitter handle refers to himself as the red-haired prince – is known for his acting ability along with his singing. He emphatically displayed those talents with his enigmatic portrayal of Grimes. While Grimes longs to turn around his life and unite with his love interest, Ellen Orford, he is star-crossed by a combination of bad decisions, bad luck, and the scorn and outright hate by his fellow townspeople.
When Grimes loses his first apprentice, his implication in a murder is intentionally unclear. The loss of the second casts more doubt on the protagonist since he forces the boy into the sea in the middle of a storm and on a Sunday, no less. Grimes’ non-reaction of a reaction to the disappearance calls into question whether he is deserving of sympathy. And that is exactly the point because it is his peers that are convicting him, which is even more reason to demand clemency for such an individual. Wolfsteiner’s Grimes never quite loses our sympathy.
A dreary seaside setting is what this work demands and Warner and the creative team deliver on this front. A lone boat is present on many occasions, highlighting the solitary state of Grimes. The scene in the pub in which mayhem breaks loose is as drab as you would expect in a town in which people do nothing more but get on each other’s nerves. The darkness casts a pall over everyone, not just the embattled Grimes, with the storms and winds of the sea not just a physical factor but a psychological one as well.
Britten At His Best
It is all hardly uplifting stuff as a story yet it is Britten’s music that catapults it into our consciousness. Conductor Sebastian Weigle and his Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra succeed in showcasing the composer’s varying styles. Britten had many musical influences in his career from being classically trained to a contemporary of Aaron Copland. There are definite tonal and atonal qualities within “Peter Grimes,” and Britten’s score collaborates with the sense of hopelessness and desolation, notably in the Four Sea Interludes.
As many character studies can be done about Peter Grimes the man, it is the music that is the star of this opera. It is jarring and unpredictable and impossible to get out of your head; the audience is journeying along on this downward trajectory and isn’t inclined to turn away. Weigle made this come to light.
Another critical character is the chorus, representing the mob-like mentality of the town. The harshness of groupthink is exemplified by the crowd’s blistering of Ellen Orford and even more so in this staging when they scream “Peter Grimes” in unison with weapons in tow in a bloodthirsty manner that brings to mind the ugly scenes of political protests worldwide currently ongoing.
A fine cast has been assembled with soprano Sara Jakubiak as Ellen Orford, the doomed love interest of Grimes. Jakubiak’s Orford sides with the outcast throughout, even when her doubts are tested over the fate of the second apprentice.
Baritone James Rutherford as Captain Balstrode is the other character sympathetic to Grimes and may be the lone voice of reason in the whole work. Other performances of note include tenor A.J. Glueckert as Bob Boles, sopranos Sydney Mancasola and Angela Vallone as the two nieces and mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as Auntie – an old woman eager to cast aspersions onto others.
As a 20th-century work, “Peter Grimes” will always be more relevant to today and it is representative of a larger issue. It is a difficult and uncomfortable examination of by what extent an individual must conform and the answer probably isn’t pleasing. If that was the aim of Oper Frankfurt’s production, it has succeeded on many levels.