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Alex Richardson as Peter Grimes [Photo by Jessi Franko]
27 Jun 2016

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Peter Grimes in Princeton

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Alex Richardson as Peter Grimes

Photos by Jessi Franko


One of the greatest wonders of this masterpiece is precise detail with which the numerous quirky inhabitants of the village are sketched in the score. Princeton Festival assembled a strong ensemble to realize Britten’s vision. Baritone Stephen Gaertner—who has gone on to great things since triumphing here some years back in a double bill of Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi— brought a combination of world-class vocal glamor and appropriately sober restraint to his portrayal of the wise old skipper Balstrode. Young mezzo Eve Gigliotti’s clear diction, resonant voice, and sympathetic manner brought Auntie, the madam with a heart of gold, to life before us. Veteran mezzo Kathryn Krasovec, who sang a memorable Marcellina in last year’s Marriage of Figaro here, vivid caricatured the sleuthing laudanum-addicted busybody Mrs. Shepley, highlighting her absurdity rather than the remarkable variety of her sins. As the Methodist Bible-thumper Boles, Tenor Casey Finnigan projected words and music clearly and idiomatically. Bass-baritone Joseph Barron launched the evening with stentorian tones and clear diction as the lawyer Swallow. Characterful performances also came from Colorado-born tenor Logan Webber as Reverend Adams, Ohio-born baritone Sean Anderson as Ned Keene the Apothecary, and Metropolitan Opera bass Christopher Job as Hobson. Two young sopranos trained at Indiana University, Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms, sang cheerfully while strutting their stuff as the so-called nieces.

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0683_EDIT.pngCaroline Worra as Ellen Orford and William Guhl-Erdie as John

While Peter Grimes is an ensemble opera, a successful performance relies heavily on the vocal and theatrical charisma of its two lead characters: Ellen Orford and Grimes himself. Wisconsin-born Caroline Worra, a repeat favorite at the Princeton Festival, made for a passionate and sympathetic Orford. She approach was as intensely expressive as any I have heard, an impression strengthened by fine diction and bright vocal timbre. In approach the role this way, Worra is simply following trends in modern sensibilities: today we expect middle-aged relationships such as that between Grimes and Orford to be more overtly romantic, whereas in mid-20th century (let alone early 19th century) England, such people expressed affection in a more restrained and discreet manner. Nonetheless, Worra’s performance was convincing, even if she sometimes ran roughshod over Britten’s express intentions, for example the long delicate passages marked “ppp senza espressione” in the “Embroidery” aria.

Even more important to a successful performance is the casting of the title role. Many modern listeners treat Jon Vickers, with his heroic voice and rough-hewn histrionics, as an ideal singer in this part. Yet while Vickers’ Grimes was surely among the most memorable operatic assumptions of modern times, it was unique. Britten and Peter Pears, who created the role, both favored a lighter and more lyrical voice and more contemplative interpretation, so as to bring out the vulnerable, spiritual, and even likeable sides of the character. Most tenors who sing the role—among them Phillip Langridge, Anthony Dean Griffey, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Pears himself—approach the role this way.

Alex Richardson takes this lyrical approach as well. His voice is reasonable-sized, although it did not penetrate the hall as well as some others on stage. His performance was thoughtful, musical and generally coherent, and—but for a bit of hoarseness at the top—his voice generally fits the role. Yet—at least on Thursday, when I heard him—he was the weakest link in the cast. Vocally, he lacked the sweet purity and extreme flexibility in the high tessitura that is required to negotiate much of Grimes’ part. Theatrically, his assumption seems not yet to have accumulated all the inspired nuances of edgy characterization that transform a solid rendition into a distinctive stage character whose personality seems sharply etched and whose suffering opens a window into the essence of the human condition. Most of the time he just seemed too nice and well-grounded young guy, but slightly out of focus. Still, Richardson remains young, and we may well hear more from him in years to come as his engagement with the role develops.

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0388_EDIT.pngKathryn Krasovec as Mrs. Sedley and Sean Anderson as Ned Keene

Princeton Festival Director Richard Tang Yuk did a splendid job preparing and conducting the chorus and orchestra. I have never heard either one sound so good in this challenging venue. The orchestra played as if inspired, offering many exquisite moments: one among many was the lonely viola solo that began the fourth interlude, played here by Julia DiGaetani. Yuk’s professional skill as a choral director was evident as well. Though the Festival Chorus is not a permanent professional ensemble, it negotiated Britten’s tricky polyphonic choruses with verve, transparency, clear diction and a timbre generally closer to proper English choral style than most of Americans achieve. Only a few spots of the greatest technical difficulty (e,g., the famously tricky “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing” in 7/4) were slightly smudged or too loud.

It was almost inevitable—given a short production run, singers and players new to the score, and the harsh acoustics of Matthews theater—that the very subtlest of Britten’s musical effects would occasionally go by the wayside. Some of Britten’s tripping everyday-speech syncopations disappeared. Some delicately precise woodwind and vocal harmonies (e.g. in the quartet “From the Gutter”) lacked Britten’s magical sense of balance and repose. Some broader architectural spans collapsed amidst the careful negotiation of a series of individual orchestral effects, for example in some interludes. Overall, however, this remained a thoroughly convincing and coherent account of this classic score.

The set design employed an accessorized, modular semi-realistic unit set. It told the story well and obviously economized prudently, without either asking much of, or delivering much to, the audience. Yet it had one fatal disadvantage, namely that the footsteps of anyone walking across it echoed loudly throughout the theater, spoiling many moments, particularly at the start and end of scenes. Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, though young, had designed for opera before. He should have known that this is a fundamental error, especially when designing for an opera like Grimes, which combines exposed orchestral lines of extraordinary delicacy with many large choral scenes. And, having found a set of this kind in place, why did Stage Director Steven LaCosse—who has long experience directing opera, here and elsewhere—not have the good sense to keep everyone stationary at such moments? Have we really reached the era when stage designers and directors no longer bother to listen to the music?

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0409_EDIT.png(l-r) Stephen Gaertner, Eve Gigliotti, Sharon Harms, Jessica Beebe, Elana Bell, Jennifer Kreider

Overall, this was one of the best productions I have heard at the Princeton Festival, which goes from operatic success to operatic success. It is a shame that Thursday night’s performance was only half-full, and many there seemed to be friends or associates of the performers.

Andrew Moravcsik

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