"I have a strong feeling that Grimes is one of us. There are people like him living all across the world," says tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sings the title role in the new production of Britten's opera. Few works examine complex moral issues as effectively as this one, and the character of Grimes has held a strong fascination for audiences ever since the first performance. Whether or not he is a criminal, Griffey says, "is up to the audience to decide. I believe in innocence until proven guilty."
The score of Peter Grimes, considered by many to be Britten's masterpiece, contains some of the composer's most beautiful and appealing music, especially in the celebrated Sea Interludes. For this new production it will be conducted by Donald Runnicles. But the work's powerful emotional impact can also be unsettling. According to director John Doyle, whose production opens February 28, the piece takes place in "a pretty dark world - there's no question about that - and a gritty world." There are no truly evil characters, but, with the sole exception of the warm-hearted, long-suffering schoolmistress Ellen Orford, all of the dramatis personae are flawed. Hypocrisy, cynicism, and just plain self-pity hold sway among the citizens of the Borough, the 19th-century English fishing village in which the story unfolds.
Grimes himself demonstrates none of these petty, commonplace defects, but his character is the most gravely flawed of all. He can't control his irascible temper, and his need to prove wrong those who blame him for the death of his boy apprentice is so powerful that it ultimately leads him to madness and self-destruction. Above all, he is an outcast. Griffey compares him to some of the homeless people with whom he has done volunteer work.
"Grimes has no social skills, and he doesn't know how to express himself," he says. "It's the extreme with Peter Grimes: it's either his outbursts of anger or he becomes very introverted and doesn't talk. There's very little in between. He says, 'I'll marry Ellen': he wants the children and the picket fence and the garden in the back. But when the whole town gangs up on him, he loses sight of that dream and retreats into himself. I feel that the role has a strong impact and really should make listeners a little uncomfortable." Griffey, who worked with Doyle on a Los Angeles Opera production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny last season, is looking forward to a reunion. "With John it's very much a give-and-take, open relationship. It's about removing the layers and letting the true character shine through."
Doyle and his designers Scott Pask (sets), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes), and Peter Mumford (lighting) have drawn much of the production's imagery from the English coastal town of Hastings, where the director lives. "We've created a series of walls, like the tall, thin, slatted wooden huts in which the fishers' nets were hung and in which people would live as well," says Doyle. The sets heighten the feeling of alienation that permeates the piece. "For right or wrong," the director explains, "the community judges Peter Grimes. It's the first thing that happens in the play. He's freed from that first judgment, but in a small community, once you've been looked at in that way, there's always a question mark." The staging reflects this. "In the course of the evening, our walls really do close in," Doyle continues, "so you get a sense of him being completely trapped. I won't go so far as to say I have sympathy for Grimes, but you have to care about him, don't you? Just as you care about Macbeth or Otello."
If public opinion is what provokes the reactions that lead to Grimes's downfall, the personal catastrophe of the title character of Verdi's Otello: which the Met is reviving this month: is caused by the manipulations of Iago, one of the most repellent villains in the history of the theater. Yet the deeper truth is that both of these unlikely tenor heroes are victims of their own single-mindedness, which makes them incapable of seeing through others' motives. And both are outsiders.
To Johan Botha, who is taking on the famously challenging title role in Verdi's tragic masterpiece, insecurity is at the heart of Otello's problems. "The Venetians of his day would have been fascinated by a black man who was also a great warrior: that's the only reason they accept him." But if Otello weren't so unsure of himself off the battlefield, he wouldn't succumb so quickly and easily to Iago's insinuations of Desdemona's infidelity. "There is a jealous person in every one of us," says the South African tenor, "but someone less insecure than Otello would have taken his wife aside and said, 'Listen, what's going on with you and Cassio?' And everything would have been made clear."
While the tragedy of Otello takes place almost entirely inside the hero's mind, in Peter Grimes the drama is set in motion by the tension that exists between society and the individual. But in the end, two operas written by two very different composers born a century apart prove to have much in common, because the pride, mistrust, and hot-headedness that bring down the moor of Venice are the same traits that destroy the fisherman of Suffolk. In the characters of Otello and Peter Grimes, Verdi and Britten created two larger-than-life figures whose tragic stories continue to haunt us.