The Washington National Opera opened its first-ever production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece, “Peter Grimes,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday with a flat-out fabulous performance. Singing, acting, chorus, orchestra — all achieved a peak of perfection that was sometimes elusive in the season’s fall stanza.
First performed in 1945, “Peter Grimes” is set in a claustrophobic English fishing village. It’s driven by deep psychological undertones of guilt and child abuse — apt subject matter even in our own era.
Fisherman Peter Grimes is suspected of murdering his first apprentice at sea, but he gets off for lack of proof. Schoolteacher Ellen Orford, a widow, believes in him and even hopes to marry him, and his only other friend, Captain Balstrode, tries to tamp down the easily aroused townsfolk. When Grimes is able to hire a new apprentice, suspicions mount, and things don’t turn out well.
An unusual element in “Grimes” is what can only be described as a starring role for the chorus. As in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” the chorus portrays an entire society, its collective suspicions and its easily aroused populist hysteria. (AIG scandals, anyone?)
The production clearly required a substantial amount of grueling rehearsal for the WNO chorus. The result? Perhaps the greatest triumph for this chorus I’ve heard since I started reviewing music for The Washington Times in late 1994. The harmonies were tight, and the composer’s wicked intervals and complex polyrhythms were spot-on.
High marks for chorus master Steven Gathman; for director Paul Curran, who moved his large forces with a kind of seething gracefulness; and for conductor Ilan Volkov, who, in his first appearance with the company, demonstrated an impressive mastery of Britten’s symphonic score.
He also had an ability to mind-meld with his considerable forces, consistently keeping entrances on time and on-tempo. The orchestra has rarely sounded better.
As Peter Grimes, Britain’s Christopher Ventris unleashed a heroic tenor voice that also possessed a silvery lyric tenderness in his complex portrayal of an angry, damaged loner with a surprising core of doubt and fragility.
Soprano Patricia Racette wrapped her powerful voice and considerable acting chops around the complex role of Ellen, portraying the widow as a loving Everywoman whose new man is already beyond reform or redemption.
Bass-baritone Alan Held, a longtime Washington favorite, adds heft and authority to his interpretation of Captain Balstrode. The retired old salt is pretty much the only voice of reason in an otherwise out-of-control small universe, and Mr. Held adds poignancy to the role and gravitas to the production.
Kudos as well to the artists who convincingly sang the large number of character roles, including Ann McMahon Quintero (Auntie), Daniel Okulitch (Swallow), David Cangelosi (Boles), Myrna Paris (a spooky Mrs. Sedley), Robert Baker (Rev. Adams), Keith Phares (Ned Keene), John Marcus Bindel (Hobson) and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Micaela Oeste and Emily Albrink (Auntie’s two supposed nieces).
WHO: The Washington National Opera
WHAT: Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: March 23 and April 4 at 7:00 p.m.; March 26 and April 1 at 7:30 p.m.; March 29 at 2 p.m.
TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Visit www.dc-opera.org or call 202/295-2400
MAXIMUM RATING: Four stars