Clayton provides the requisite dramatic intensity in Met’s “Peter Grimes”

Mon Oct 17, 2022 at 12:31 pm
Allan Clayton stars in the title role of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine/Met Opera

One can only wonder about the interests of opera audiences. Sunday afternoon the Metropolitan Opera opened their revival of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. One of the great scores by one of the finest opera composers, the performance also featured British tenor Allan Clayton—who made an intense impression in his house debut in Hamlet last spring—in the title role. Yet the house was only about two-thirds full.

Those that did turn out enjoyed a superb performance by Clayton, who sang with intelligence and musicality and a subtle and wise understanding of the shape of the drama. He was supported by the Met’s typically deep casting, with soprano Nicole Car as Ellen Orford and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka as Balstrode. The chorus sang with characteristic fire, and smaller character roles were filled by the likes of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Auntie, bass Patrick Cartizzi as Swallow, and tenor Tony Steveson as Reverend Horace Adams. 

The only variable component was in the pit, with conductor Nicholas Carter. The magnificent “Sea Interludes”—scene change music that is also essential for creating atmosphere and presaging the action to come—were full of rich colors and vibrancy, but also felt distant, stepping over the fine but crucial line between an opera performance and a concert one. The first was a hair fast and slightly dry in expression, and the first indication of an interpretive approach that was too understated and focused on details. At times it felt as if  Carter was waiting for the power in the score to come out and take care of itself. This didn’t always happen, and there were stretches of orchestral music, like the interlude before Act III, where the music brings together the complex feelings of tragedy in this opera, but Carter again held it back.

Clayton combined that modern interpretive technique with a large scale sense of direction, and produced a terrific musical characterization. Grimes is one of the most difficult characters to portray, the protagonist who is also a villain, although the worst of him is driven by a need to find a way to live in a society that would prefer he never existed.

From his first notes in the Prologue, one wondered if his voice was too pretty for a character who can be tender but also spiteful, callous, and obsessive. But across the whole range of the story, Clayton modulated his singing in two ways; he made it even more beautiful and luminous in passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” where he sang as simply and clearly as could be. Yet he could also sing in a distorted and chaotic style when appropriate, especially as he pushed his apprentice John (Brandon Chosed, in a silent role) into danger to serve Grimes’ striving for money. In his final music in Act III, hiding from the citizens of the borough who are calling his name, Clayton alternated between gentle beauty and a kind of vocal agony, justification and guilt, in a tour-de-force musical and dramatic interpretation.

Clayton and the chorus provided the weight and intensity that Carter held back from the orchestra in the pit. The sound of the villagers was at times exuberant, swooning, and threatening.

John Doyle’s monumental production does an intelligent job of communicating the idea of society via a mass of people, and also isolating key figures and moments against a wall of metaphorical indifference. Grimes is commonly and fairly seen as an allegory of homosexual-as-outsider, and in 2022 that allegory ably stretches to anyone who is shunned or abhorred as different. The production allows for that more general interpretation, and Sunday’s performance expressed both.

That started with Clayton, whose Grimes was less about what made him different than the character’s desperation to find some way to fit in. This was supported by the rest of the cast: Car sang sweetly and carried Orford with a sense of rectitude, trying to do the impossible of both saving John and helping Grimes, and not understanding how to do either. 

Plachetka sang with a sense of command, the character navigating a line of helping Grimes and Orford while not getting too personally involved. His “sink the boat” in Act III, sung more than spoken, was a blunt rejoinder to Orford and Grimes, with a sound that made it feel inevitable without harshness.

Stevenson sang with a strong sense of fervor, a kind of vocal Bible-thumping that showed the antagonism of the borough as something both aggressive and arbitrary, ready to swing one way or another depending on mood or circumstance. Carfizzi, always good at being comical but also straight-faced, was a fine counterweight to this. Clayton himself brought home all the tragedy, and the chorus’ singing in the closing scene was gentle and shimmering, heartfelt, Carter and the orchestra finally unleashing the tragic, aching beauty in the score.

Peter Grimes runs through November 12.

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