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Caroline Worra as Ellen Orford and Alex Richardson as Peter Grimes in Steven LaCosse's production of Britten's opera at the Princeton Festival
Photo by Jessi Franko
STAGING PETER GRIMES is a tough proposition for a smallish festival; June 26's third of three performances of Britten's 1945 breakthrough work at the Princeton Festival showed remarkably tight musical results under Richard Tank Yuk's baton, and a largely strong cast that would have honored many larger venues. The McCarter Center's Matthews Theater proved a welcomely intimate space for the drama, though the music retained gale force impact when needed.
Though the show finally cohered, Steven LaCosse's direction rarely illuminated. Having no curtain meant that sets were changed during the Sea Interludes—some of Grimes's most memorable music, notably well-played by Tang Yuk's forces. That's understandable, but LaCosse larded these scenes with unnecessary and frequently noisy and/or distracting set-crosses and business by other characters. Evoking the village's hierarchies and its denizens flow demands complex sensitivity not always evident here. For example, Ellen wasn't onstage early enough to hear Hobson's refusal to pick up the new apprentice—which her response quotes both verbally and musically. (This was one of the places in which Caroline Worra's appealing voice lacked the requisite touch of grandeur the Elsa-like role surely requires). A quartet of matrons out of Susannah barred Ellen and John from entering the church, yet the whole flock of village ladies continually welcomed Auntie and the Nieces, including into Sunday church. Homoerotic subtexts went completely unexplored: Peter really seemed to want to marry Ellen, and not just as a feint. This is a legitimate interpretive choice, but one that felt odd on National Pride Day. On the other hand, the ever-scary lynching party scene—lustily and accurately sung by Gregory Geehern's chorus—featured brandished handguns and rifles, echoing current events.
LaCosse and costume designer Marie Miller placed the plot in the 1940s—presumably post-WW II, or the presence of so many able-bodied men and Balstrode's reference to the merchant marine makes no sense. The resultant outfits didn't always flatter the singers. Certainly some aspects of Grimes are universal; but the more visible modernity is introduced, the less likely workhouse brats, delivery by cart and traveling assizes seem. Also, much as audiences love seeing wee children deployed for local color, Peter Grimes does not strike me as the ideal vehicle for such heartstring-tugging.
Alex Richardson possesses a fine, attractive tenor, able to provide both ringing and floated tone as needed. His youthful Grimes was soundly enough acted but will surely take on more individuality with longer rehearsal periods: as it was, he was neither particularly poetic in his use of text nor scarily dramatic enough for projecting the needed outsider status; this was a good start on a difficult role. Worra is always a committed performer musically and dramatically; most of Ellen's music was sung with beauty and incisive verbal point. Stephen Gaertner seemed ideally voiced for Balstrode and made aptly manly, marbled sounds all afternoon, while acting sympathetically, although his sung words might have been more strongly articulated. Totally admirable in this regard was Eve Gigliotti's Auntie, as clear in diction and in theatrical intention as a good Broadway actress, with a striking, personal mezzo timbre. The Nieces (Jessica Beebe, Sharon Harms) sang nicely but we lost the quartet's final floated D flat. Joseph Barron's Swallow also stood out for immaculate verbal clarity and vocal quality and steadiness. Sean Anderson's Ned needed more steadiness on sustained lines but was very good in more conversational passages and engaging dramatically. Casey Finnegan's admirably trenchant, agile-voiced Boles sounded like a potential Grimes. Kathryn Krasovec, a reliably good singer, seemed both vocally miscast and misdirected as Mrs. Sedley, a character notoriously hard to bring off. —David Shengold