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‘Peter Grimes’ Review: Opera Stars Take On an Omicron-Battered Vienna


VIENNA — Whenever I open Instagram these days, it seems, I’m served an ad for “Hamilton.” Once a destination musical that took months of planning or deep pockets to see, it is now algorithmically spreading the word that last-minute tickets are up for grabs, no #Ham4Ham lottery required.

Such is the state of live performance as the Omicron variant upends shows and keeps wary audiences at home.

Take the Vienna State Opera, one of the world’s great companies and a major tourist attraction. Forced to close for nearly a week in December because of the coronavirus, it is only now returning to full capacity. Nearly 450 seats (in a house with just over 1,700) were still unsold on Wednesday morning, with mere hours to go until the opening of a luxuriously cast revival of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” — ostensibly one of the hottest tickets in Europe, featuring the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the fast-rising soprano Lise Davidsen.

By curtain time, the house appeared much fuller, but hundreds of tickets remain available for each future performance. It’s easy to see why people might be discouraged, and why the company is practically begging for attendance: Visitors to the State Opera, who are required to wear N95-quality masks inside the building, must also be fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as tested (by P.C.R., pointedly not antigen) for the virus.

I wasn’t alone in scrambling to produce all the necessary documents as I entered: an ID, a nontransferable ticket, a certificate of vaccination and a negative test result — which came with a 70-euro price tag because I had traveled from Berlin, where rapid tests are widely available and free, but P.C.R. ones are not.

The things we do for opera.

And, in this case, for the opportunity to hear Kaufmann in his debut as Peter Grimes, as well as Davidsen in her first staged performance as Ellen Orford — initial impressions of roles these artists are rumored to be taking elsewhere in future seasons, including the Metropolitan Opera.

Often stranded by Christine Mielitz’s neon-streaked staging of the opera — a psychologically complex tragedy of provincial cruelty and loneliness — Kaufmann and Davidsen seemed forced to rely on their dramatic instincts rather than a cohesive vision. Although the evening was far from a disaster and was warmly received, neither singer appears to have found a new signature role.

Kaufmann, in particular, struggled to trace clearly his character’s decline from social isolation to volatility and suicidal delirium. A fisherman who is believed by mobbish villagers to have killed his apprentices, Grimes carries the weight of perception; in this production, he is literally burdened by ropes and the bodies of the boys who died under his watch. Sounding likewise weighed, Kaufmann mostly sang in shades of weariness, with an overreliance on floated pianissimos punctuated by outbursts more heroic than pained or violent.

If this approach — steadfastly resigned rather than mercurial — made for static storytelling, it paid off in Grimes’s climactic mad scene. Having long sulked under a halo of anguish, Kaufmann was all the more moving in this hushed monologue, lending an inevitability to his character’s death.

But in this scene, as throughout the opera, Britten scatters spiky marcato and staccato articulation. Kaufmann opted instead for a consistent legato, sometimes at odds with the orchestra and, in extreme cases, slurring phrases into unintelligibility.

Davidsen’s Ellen is a departure from the mighty Wagner and Strauss roles that have swiftly made her famous. “Grimes” requires comparative modesty, a challenge she met on Wednesday with graceful control — judiciously deploying the reverberation she is capable of when needed to illustrate her iron will in the face of a small town’s rushed judgments, and dropping to a glassy pianissimo in moments of convincing despair. She matched the score’s precise indications with crisp delivery and diction, but also, in Act II, wove a delicately doleful quartet with Noa Beinart as Auntie and Ileana Tonca and Aurora Marthens as the two Nieces.

The other star onstage was the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, as Balstrode — who is, aside from Ellen, the only resident of “the Borough” (as the town is called) who treats Grimes with some sympathy. But that was difficult to discern in this performance; Terfel’s robust voice had a touch of wickedness, with smirks here and there that made it seem as though he were encouraging Grimes’s destructive path. It came as no surprise when Balstrode, at last, told the poor Grimes to sink with his boat at sea.

Other cast members stood out, for better and worse: the affecting textures of Martin Hässler’s Ned Keene and the dark comedy of Thomas Ebenstein’s Bob Boles; but also the shouty cries of Stephanie Houtzeel’s Mrs. Sedley, an interpretation better fit for Brecht than Britten.

The conductor Simone Young shaped enormous peaks and valleys of sound in the orchestra. The great interludes were distinct narratives: the first setting a tone with its chilling thinness, the third angular and balletic, the fifth gently rocking yet tense. And the chorus, monochromatically costumed and often moving in unison, sang with as much richly defined character as any single performer onstage. In Act III, its members truly embodied the destructive power of a determined mob.

That scene is one of the most horrifying in opera, a grand climax in a work that, when performed at this level, makes any onerous safety protocol worthwhile. If you can get over that hurdle, there are several opportunities — and many, many tickets — left to hear it for yourself.

Peter Grimes

Through Feb. 8 at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at.


Circassia News

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