The San Francisco Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" is done mostly in variations of black, white, and gray, with very little color. It is set in a fishing village on the east coast of England in 1830. It's a very bleak place, and the characters are like the Dutch peasants of Vincent van Gogh's early paintings, they have the same earthy look and feel, with similar costumes and buildings. This is a psychological/moral drama of Peter, who is a fisherman, out of place in his surroundings. He is visionary, ambitious, impetuous, and frustrated. The village people dislike, and are scared of him. It's like Peter against the world, and it dogs him for his entire life. His only friend is Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress. Peter wants to marry her, but first he must live down his unpopularity and lift himself out of poverty. He is obsessed with money, and is convinced that it will be his salvation. In Act 2 he rhapsodizes to his apprentice that money will buy respect from the village people, freedom, and a nice warm home with Ellen.
In Act 1, Peter's first apprentice has died, during a recent fishing trip. He is in a courtroom being cross-examined, before being given a warning, because of lack of evidence. The townspeople are convinced he killed him, though we find out later from Peter that he "just died." When the Inquisitor Swallow, calls him callous, brutal, and course, he snaps around infuriated. He sings a beautiful duet with Ellen. She sings of restoring his good name, while he tells of the vicious gossip that will be aimed at her. They hold hands and come together with genuine warmth. The second scene is an old fishing village. We have stone buildings with wooden beams, and a wooden bridge. Some fishermen help Peter land his boat, while the townspeople jeer. The Parson tells us that men "invented morals, but the tide has none." Ellen says "Let she who is without fault cast the first stone," as she goes to fetch Peter another apprentice from the workhouse. The sky darkens as a storm rolls in. In the interior of the Boar, when Grimes enters, the pub goes dark and silent. He sings of the gathering clouds of human grief, and we're told "his song alone would sour the beer." The new apprentice is brought in and is terrified as he's given to Peter who is reviled by all.
In Act 2 the boy appears on the wooden bridge. Ellen sees him, and gets him to sit by the sea and talk. She discovers tears in his clothes and bruises. She realizes that Peter is mistreating him. She tells him "You've learned how close life is to torture," and "the storm and all it's terrors are nothing to heart's despair." Peter arrives, and drives the boy back to his hut, so they can go out fishing to make more money. The scenes are punctuated with the offstage church chorus and organ. The storm has eroded the cliff outside his door, and the boy slips, falls, and is killed.
By Act 3 Peter has gone completely mad. As the townspeople go hunting for him, he comes to the town square, where Ellen and Balstrode find him. Alan Held's strong and steady Balstrode convinces him to go out to sea and sink his boat. The solitary figure of Ellen gazes out forlornly as the townspeople gather around her.
Peter Grimes isn't a bad sort, but rather unlucky and frustrated. The obstacles placed in front of him by the townspeople drive him to work incessantly to accumulate money. He drives himself relentlessly, and also his apprentices who are terrified of him. When Balstrode tells him to join the merchant fleet and get away, he says he has roots here and can't leave. Eventually the despair of his soul overcomes him and he goes mad and is completely broken. Thomas Moser is a tremendous Grimes. He projects the impetuously and compulsion that people fear about him, and the tender love that he feels for Ellen, with whom he simply wants to build a home and be accepted by the townspeople like everyone else. Deborah Riedel's Ellen Orford is patient, sweet, and loving. She really tries to reconcile everyone, and she sees the despair in Peter and tries to soothe it, to no avail. In Act 3 she sings a beautiful aria of the embroidered anchor of the boy's, which she has found on the shore, and which tells her he is dead. She recalls her youth and the serenity she found in embroidering. Catherine Cook is the shrewish old gossip Mrs. Sedley. She lurks in the shadows and is constantly trying to stir things up. Interestingly, the Stage director, John Copley portrayed "The Boy" in the first Covent Garden staging in 1947.
Donald Runnicles was in complete control of this luscious score. It's deeply contemplative, while being transparently ethereal. We have the wild passion of the storms, both human and natural, and the swells and ebbs of the sea. Runnicles wrings every drop of emotion out of this completely engrossing production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" at The San Francisco Opera.