British composer Benjamin Britten once said his 1945 opera “Peter Grimes” — currently being revived at the Princeton Festival — was “a subject very close to my heart — the struggle of the individual against the masses.”
Britten himself had such major conflicts: He was a stalwart conscientious objector in World War II and openly gay. Since he wrote the title role in “Grimes” for his partner, Peter Pears, it is clear his own experiences contributed to the power of the opera.
Viewed on opening night, Saturday, June 18, at McCarter Theater — with additional performances set for Thursday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m. — the Princeton Festival’s production of “Peter Grimes” enveloped the audience, virtually transporting listeners to the stage and making them part of the community where Grimes lived. This was not just a presentation; it was an experience.
Britten’s well-constructed and focused work ably aids that effort — with the repeated use of the name “Peter” or “Peter Grimes” as text, for instance, stressing the town’s obsession with the fisherman. The production use of titles mounted above the stage made the English libretto easy to follow.
Conductor Richard Tang Yuk commanded both sound and silence to make the most of the tension between individual and community. Director Steven LaCosse devised individual characterizations that performers realized both dramatically and vocally. All the vocalists, including the chorus, met the musical challenges of this demanding piece. The design team did its part: Norman Coates handled lighting design; Marie Miller, costumes; and Jonathan Dahm Robertson, sets.
As the audience arrives, the stage is busy. The people of a fishing village on England’s east coast silently go about their tasks. The opera opens when lawyer Swallow (Joseph Barron) calls Peter Grimes’ name and opens an inquest into the death at sea of his apprentice. Played as a bully, Swallow is overbearing and emotionless.
Peter hopes for a thorough investigation to clear his reputation. Peter (Alex Richardson) has a warm tenor voice with no sharp edges; he establishes himself early as a victim, rather than a villain. Guest artist Richardson has performed in the Princeton Opera’s production of “Der fliegende Hollander” and is set to perform in two upcoming productions at the Metropolitan Opera.
Peter’s most ardent supporter is the widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford, a love interest. The role is performed with compassion tempered by a tendency to teach correctness by soprano Caroline Worra, who has performed with Glimmerglass Opera, New York City Opera, Metropolitan Opera, and others.
Peter’s new apprentice is John (opening night, William Guhl-Erdie, eighth grader at St. Ann’s School, Lawrenceville, played the role). Despite John’s lack of response to her friendly advances, Ellen attempts to protect him from Peter’s demand that he work on a Sunday.
One of the high points of the opera, musically and dramatically, takes place as Ellen and Peter, outside the church, disagree while the service is heard. The background sounds of the religious service are serene and pious, the argument between Ellen and Peter is raw and vehement.
The opera includes six orchestral interludes, which are often played independently in concert. The McCarter production takes advantage of the absence of operatic action during the interludes to cope with the production’s limited stage resources and transform settings. With lights dimmed, the stage becomes the wharf, the pub, the churchyard, or Grimes’ hut, according to the needs of the plot.
The Festival Orchestra, made up of freelancers, is an independent entity. Leader of the Violin II section is Marc Uys, director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
Peter Grimes, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Thursday, June 23; 7:30 p.m., Sunday, June 26, 3 p.m. $30 to $140. 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org. The Princeton Festival continues through Sunday, June 26.