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Lost at Sea

Kennedy Center Opera House
03/21/2009 -  & March 23, 26, 29m, April 1, 4
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Christopher Ventris (Peter Grimes), Patricia Racette (Ellen Orford), Alan Held (Captain Balstrode), Ann McMahon Quintero (Auntie), Daniel Okulitch (Swallow), Micaëla Oeste (1st Niece), Emily Albrink (2nd Niece), David Cangelosi (Bob Boles), Myrna Paris (Mrs. Sedley), Robert Baker (Rev. Horace Adams), Keith Phares (Ned Keene), John Marcus Bindel (Hobson)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Washington National Opera, Stephen Gathman (Chorus Master), Ilan Volkov (Conductor)
Paul Curran (Director), Robert Innes Hopkins (Set and Costume Design), Rick Fisher (Lighting Design), Wigs and Makeup (Elsen Associates)

C. Ventris, P. Racette (© Karin Cooper)

These performances mark the Washington National Opera’s company premiere of Peter Grimes. The production comes from the Santa Fe Opera, where it originated in 2005. The opening night performance was dramatically gripping and emotionally wrought in large part to the sensitive and detailed portrayals rendered by Christopher Ventris, Patricia Racette, and Alan Held in the three main solo roles. The principal character of this opera, however, is the Chorus of Townspeople, and the WNO Chorus gave a powerful performance that propelled the drama throughout the entire opera. They were magnificent in their singing and captivating in their characterizations as a whole and as individuals. Chorus Master Stephen Gathman’s preparation is always superb, and Director Paul Curran’s staging brought the chorus to an even higher level. It was very impressive work.

Peter Grimes is a story of the evils of slander, gossip, and calumny, of the dangers of mass hysteria, and how it can ruin the lives of others. Peter Grimes has often been called the most powerful opera written since World War II. It is the tale of a solitary and misfit fisherman whose boy apprentice dies while at sea on a fishing trip. Peter is accused of murder, and although he is acquitted in his trial, the townsfolk remain unconvinced of his innocence. His only two remaining friends are the schoolteacher Ellen Orford and his old friend Captain Balstrode who help him acquire a new apprentice to continue his fishing expeditions. When the new apprentice falls to his death from a cliff, the angry mob drives Peter Grimes to madness. He takes his boat out to sea and sinks it. It is an overwhelming condemnation of suspicion and the tragic consequences of mob mentality. Director Paul Curran understands these implications with unusual clarity. He has brought this opera vividly to life with his highly detailed direction that is always “at one” with the music.

Christopher Ventris is riveting in his characterization of the tragic Peter Grimes. His strong, masculine voice pours forth a myriad of emotional timbres. His voice, which often soars, filling the entire opera house, is frequently brought down to a whisper, which is haunting in its impact. His heldentenor voice is certainly not that of the typical British lyric tenor that one associates with Peter Pears who originated the role. However, he implicitly captures the British style with his phrasing and the coloration of his voice. It was a powerful portrayal, which is cathartic in its impact.

I first heard Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford in a performance ten years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. She was memorable then but has since grown tremendously in this role. Her expressive use of vocal nuance and dynamic shading is impressive, and her diction was superlative. Except for the very highest register, I could understand every word she sang…a near impossible feat for most sopranos! Ms. Racette embodied the character of Ellen Orford, commanding the stage in all of her scenes. She was overwhelming in her pathos during the last act with her singing of the air about the embroidery on the sweater she knitted for the boy apprentice. It was sung with such simple tenderness and heartache that it was difficult not to dab away a furtive tear. As all really great actresses do, she hardly moved a muscle, and yet the entire audience was drawn completely to her. She is a true mistress of her art.

Bass-baritone Alan Held has long been a favorite of Washington audiences, and will mark his twentieth production with the WNO as Wotan in the upcoming performances of Wagner’s Siegfried. His tall commanding presence and deeply resonant voice made for an ideal portrayal of the sturdy Captain Balstrode. One could believe he had the strength and convictions to stand up to the town’s mob in defense of Grimes. He was the perfect counterbalance to Ventris and Racette, adding substantial dramatic weight in all of his scenes. Balstrode is the only one to rouse Peter from his madness, the only one to whom Peter will listen for counsel, and it is Balstrode who directs Peter to take his boat out to sea and sink it in the final scene. Mr. Held was most convincing in all of these aspects.

Myna Paris was a standout as the nasty and conniving town gossip Mrs. Sedley.
Robert Baker was excellent in his characterization of the occasionally intoxicated Rev. Horace Adams. Having sung every oratorio with virtually every cathedral choir in Washington, there is certainly no one who knows more of “church” politics than Robert Baker. His was a “telling” performance. All of the supporting roles were excellent which is a credit to the artistic casting of the WNO.

A special mention must be made of the highly atmospheric lighting of Rick Fisher. It captured perfectly the dull grey of the ocean sky and darkness of the night without obscuring the faces of the singers. Had the WNO’s resident lighting designer Joan Sullivan done the lighting, it is most likely that practically nothing would have been visible.

Conductor Ilan Volkov is making his company debut with these performances. He was strong in the pit and elicited excellent control of the chorus and principals. The opera is famous for its splendid “sea interludes”. The orchestra played them with lots of color and style under Maestro Volkov’s baton. This is a most compelling production. It is marked by a distinguished chorus, superb principals, and insightful direction and conducting. Peter Grimes runs through April 4. If you are in Washington during the run, you will not want to miss this.

Micaele Sparacino



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