‘Magnetic from start to finish’: Vibrant theatricality raises Chautauqua Opera’s ‘Peter Grimes’ to great heights

Brian Smith | Staff PhotographerThe townspeople of the Borough enter the stage during the opening scene of Chautauqua Opera’s Peter Grimes, performed Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Brian Smith | Staff Photographer

The townspeople of the Borough enter the stage during the opening scene of Chautauqua Opera’s Peter Grimes, performed Saturday in the Amphitheater.

Guest review by Donald Rosenberg

Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, whose 200th birthdays are being celebrated this year, took a while to find their operatic footing. But not Benjamin Britten, who’ll be a mere 100 in November. With his first opera, Peter Grimes, Britten burst onto the scene as a master in the genre.

Chautauqua Opera is doing its part in marking the milestones of all three composers during its 85th season this summer with productions or scenes from their greatest works. The festivities began Saturday in the Amphitheater with a fully staged performance of Peter Grimes that was magnetic from start to finish.

The splendor of the achievement should not be understated. Even major opera houses struggle to do justice to Britten’s powerful and poetic story of an outcast — the fisherman Peter Grimes — trying to exist in the face of an intolerant society. The work requires principal singers who inhabit their roles while negotiating Britten’s tricky vocal writing, a chorus of almost torrential ability, and an orchestra capable of shimmering and shattering intensity.

All of those demands, and more, were met Saturday in what was Chautauqua Opera’s first (and only) performance of Peter Grimes in its history. Aside from musical considerations, the production had the benefit of striking scenic, lighting and video designs.

The locales in the Borough, as the eastern English coast setting is called in the George Crabbe poem upon which the opera is based, came to life through the most economical of means. Ron Kadri’s settings — a staircase, movable panels, a wall, benches — served many salient purposes as transformed by members of the cast. Projections of sea scenes and telling lighting effects (by Michael Baumgarten) added atmospheric magic.

Even Mother Nature chimed in at an appropriate point. As Grimes sang his great, ambiguous aria, “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” rain poured on the Amphitheater and distant thunder could be heard. For a work so rooted in storms and aquatic imagery, it was a gift from operatic heaven.

To keep the performance at reasonable length, the production was performed in two parts, rather than in the traditional three acts, with an intermission after Scene 1 of Act 2. It made for a long sit early on, but starting the second part with the fourth interlude, the “Passacaglia,” also made dramatic sense.

What partly raised this Grimes to the heights was the production’s vibrant theatricality. Jay Lesenger’s staging emphasized characterization and mood, with the chorus as central, vicious figure in the tragic events. Pitted against a community that embraces spite and cruelty over compassion, the crude and idealistic Grimes never stood a chance.

The chorus, comprising Chautauqua Opera Young Artists and colleagues, riveted attention whenever it was onstage. Prepared by Carol Rausch, the ensemble proved a model of balance, clarity and sheer, visceral power. Its utterances of “Peter Grimes!” toward the end were at once shocking and magnificent.

The title role is among the formidable challenges in the operatic repertory. Indelible accounts of the part have come from tenors as different as Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner, and Jon Vickers. In the Chautauqua production, Kevin Ray put his own stamp on the role, playing Grimes as a tortured soul who aches to find some semblance of worldly contentment.

Ray sounded tentative in the opening scene, but he soon let his focused voice bloom and wrap itself around Montagu Slater’s words and Britten’s luminous music. The role’s difficult range held no terrors for Ray, who sailed eloquently through the most mesmerizing passages, such as the wide leaps in “What harbour shelters peace” and the anguished, repeated notes in “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades.”

Although his mad scene might have been even more crazed, Ray became a hypnotic ghost as he carried the dead apprentice through the audience to the ship Grimes was about to sink. He will surely be in demand to sing the role in opera houses around the world.

Grimes is a character of mysterious psychological makeup, but so is Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmistress who tries to help the fisherman. Elizabeth Baldwin brought enormous sympathy to the role, suggesting something more than friendship. Her singing was a keen reflection of the woman’s conflicted emotions — fervent and penetrating, occasionally strident, always gauged to the expressive moment.

The rest of the cast was strong, from David Kravitz’s warm, understanding Balstrode and Philip Cokorinos’ sonorous Swallow to Cindy Sadler’s fidgety Mrs. Sedley and Rachelle Pike’s lusty Auntie. Cree Carrico and Kristin Schweke made fetching work of the “nieces,” and Jon Jurgens (Bob Boles), Brett Sprague (Rev. Horace Adams), Ted Federle (Ned Keene), Jonathan Harris (Jim Hobson) and Beck Benson (in the mute role of John, the apprentice) turned in superb characterizations.

No performance of Peter Grimes can succeed without a conductor and orchestra wired to Britten’s distinctive electricity. Steven Osgood shaped Saturday’s performance with exceptional attention to color, nuance and momentum and drew vivid playing from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. The interludes, often extracted for concert purposes, sounded especially majestic and affecting in their original contexts.

Now on to the other birthday boys. With Britten handsomely dispatched, Chautauqua Opera pays tribute to Wagner and Verdi in concert Saturday and presents a full production of Verdi’s mirthful final opera, Falstaff, on July 26 and 29.

Donald Rosenberg has been writing about music for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland since 1992. He is the author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None and former president of the Music Critics Association of North America.