Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
“Who holds himself apart/Lets his pride rise./Him who despises us/We’ll destroy.” This ominous warning is sung by the townfolk of the Borough, a scruffy, storm-battered enclave on the North Sea, as they form a posse to hunt down Peter Grimes, the title character of Benjamin Britten’s opera. Grimes is a subsistence fisherman, and although a local court has recently attributed the death of his young apprentice to accidental circumstances, the town thinks otherwise. They know Grimes as a loner, a troubled soul given to fiery visions and fits of rage. His only ally is a widowed schoolteacher, Ellen Orford; following the verdict, together they hope to rebuild Grimes’s life and reputation. When Ellen finds evidence that Grimes is treating a new apprentice roughly, and Grimes strikes her, the posse comes together seeking speedy justice; when a second apprentice falls to his death, Grimes, disoriented and barely coherent, seems to accept the town’s guilty verdict, sailing out to sea and sinking his boat.
Peter Grimes premiered in London at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on June 7, 1945, just weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany. For the previous six years, newsreels had portrayed the war as an unambiguous struggle of good against evil, yet more complex views had appeared even before the war ended and postwar anxiety and disillusionment set in. On Broadway, the malevolent farmhand Jud Fry and the tormented wife-beater Billy Bigelow darkened the customary razzle-dazzle of musical comedy, and Nellie Forbush (currently washing her hair in a revival of South Pacific) recognized that her cockeyed optimism concealed a deeply ingrained, carefully instilled racism. On the screen as well, the capacity for racism, intolerance and brutality was not limited to the Axis foe. Harry Lime scurried out of an underworld of venal motives and casual violence like a sewer rat. In reel after reel of film noir, gangsters on the home front acted like Nazi gauleiters building fiefdoms with omnipresent, unrestrained terror. As Philip Roth reminded us in The Plot Against America (2004), it was the home front’s cult of nationalistic spirit and self-sacrifice, not the prospect of military defeat, that aroused fears of a Nazified America. It could happen here.
Along with Britten’s Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954), Peter Grimes can be considered opera noir, the musical equivalent of The Big Heat or Touch of Evil. John Doyle, director of the recent Metropolitan Opera production of Peter Grimes, is best known for his staging of Sweeney Todd in 2005, an apt springboard for reconceiving Britten’s more profoundly grim masterpiece. Doyle set Stephen Sondheim’s penny dreadful shocker “in a bleak wooden box of a room that suggests an underfinanced psych ward in limbo,” as Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. For the staging of Peter Grimes, widely seen on HD simulcast at movie theaters and later replayed on public television, Doyle similarly replaced the picturesque seaside realism of recent productions with literal, full-frontal noir. The set (designed by Scott Pask) consisted of a towering yet mobile black wall that at times pressed the performers right up against the edge of the stage, on the verge of an orchestra heaving and boiling with the sounds of oceanic catastrophe.