At the Met, Allan Clayton stakes his claim among the greats in Peter Grimes

United StatesUnited States Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Nicholas Carter (conductor). Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2.11.2022. (RP)

Allan Clayton (Peter Grimes) © Richard Termine

Director – John Doyle
Sets – Scott Pask
Costumes – Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting – Peter Mumford
Projections – S. Katy Tucker

Peter Grimes – Allan Clayton
Ellen Orford – Laura Wilde
Captain Balstrode – Adam Plachetka
Auntie – Denyce Graves
Mrs. Sedley – Michaela Martens
Swallow – Patrick Carfizzi
Ned Keene – Justin Austin
Rev. Horace Adams – Tony Stevenson
Nieces – Brandie Sutton, Maureen McKay
Hobson – Harold Wilson
Bob Boles – Chad Shelton
John – Brandon Chosed

It has been close to forty years since Jon Vickers last performed Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera, but he cast a long shadow. More than once, a voice could be heard at this performance declaring to have heard the Canadian tenor as Britten’s ultimate outcast. However, English tenor Allan Clayton, returning to the Met after his exciting debut in the title role of Brett Dean’s Hamlet in 2022, made the role his own with his complex and powerfully sung Peter Grimes.

For this run, the Met revived Scottish-born director John Doyle’s bleak and foreboding 2008 production. Massive walls of weather-beaten wood dominate the stage and can be manipulated to create a court room, Grimes’s hut or any number of places in a fictional seaside village on England’s eastern coast. The set pushes the action to the front of the stage with cast and chorus facing the audience. Doyle created the near impossible effect of making one feel claustrophobic in the Met – emotions generated by the townsfolk are projected directly at the audience, and there is no escaping their force.

There is scant color in this seaside village. The villagers are dressed in black. Doors open for characters to peer down on the action or, just as often, for the men of the town to furtively enter The Boar, an inn where drink and Auntie’s ‘Nieces’ afford comfort and escape. In Act II, the doorways provide a particularly evocative setting for Ellen Orford, Auntie and her Nieces to bemoan the sorry state of the town’s menfolk. They, like the prominent men of the town, are the only ones wearing color of any sort.

The sea is a constant presence. Black-and-white videos of waves – some crashing violently and others tranquilly lapping the shore – are seen during the interludes and mask the set changes in the opera. The films created a mesmerizing effect that drew one further into the music.

There was nothing of the hero about Clayton’s Grimes, only a frenzied, tormented man. This Grimes was hulking and disheveled, with unkempt hair and a crazed, faraway look in his eyes. His relentless drive was fueled by dreams of a life with Ellen, but his mind was troubled by the death of his young apprentice at sea.

Clayton’s voice had the power to lash out defiantly but was also capable of great beauty, as when he sang with hope of his future with Ellen. The near-white tone with which Clayton began ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’ provided an unsettling window into the disturbed man’s psyche. There was only despair to be heard as Grimes lamented the deaths of his apprentices and accepted the reality that the sole course of action left to him was to scupper his ship and drown himself.

Maureen McKay and Brandie Sutton (the Nieces) and Patrick Carfizzi (Swallow) © Richard Termine

Soprano Laura Wilde captured both the primness and passion in Ellen Orford, in the second of two performances that mark her Met debut. Tall and erect, she embodied the spinster schoolmarm, who is every bit as much an outsider as Grimes. Wilde’s voice was at one with her character: firm, focused and true. The ‘Embroidery Aria’ was particularly moving and provided a moment of reflection and calm amidst the turbulence of the opera’s final scenes.

Adam Plachetka provided warmth both vocally and dramatically as Captain Balstrode, who was Grimes’s only friend among the townsfolk. Denyce Graves was a no-nonsense Auntie, as commanding in presence as she was in voice. As the town’s chief gossip, Michaela Martens was a persnickety laudanum-taking Mrs. Sedley, and Patrick Carfizzi was equal parts functionary and hypocrite as Swallow.

Youthful zest was supplied by the smooth-voiced baritone Justin Austin as Ned Keene, the local apothecary who keeps Mrs. Sedley supplied with her anxiety relief. The double act by Brandie Sutton and Maureen McKay as Auntie’s Nieces was one of the main attractions of The Boar.

Peter Grimes contains some of the most powerful, as well as most lyrical and transcendent, music that Britten composed. Nicholas Carter, who made his Met debut last season conducting Hamlet, led the Met Orchestra in a brilliant reading of the score. Torrents of sound lashed out from the pit, but also phrases as transparent and shimmering as the sun dancing off the sea.

As important as any single character in the opera, however, are the townspeople who sit in judgment of Peter Grimes. The music that Britten composed for them ranges from hymns to near-volcanic eruptions of sound in denunciation of Grimes. The Met chorus was terrific.

Rick Perdian

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