The Met Revives `Peter Grimes' In Honor of Its 50th Year

Cole Porter was so bowled over by Ethel Merman's singing that he wrote entire Broadway shows tailored to her brassy, sassy voice. Burt Bacharach has written dozens of winsome pop songs for the inimitable voice of Dionne Warwick. The practice of composing songs for specific singers is going strong in pop music.

It used to be standard practice in the opera house as well. Mozart created the role of Papageno in ``The Magic Flute'' for Emanuel Schikaneder, a sort of 18th-century Viennese Al Jolson; and the role has never sounded quite right when sung today by certified operatic voices. Verdi was so taken with the artistry of the young baritone Victor Maurel, who sang in the 1881 revised version of his opera ``Simon Boccanegra'' that he wrote the role of Iago in ``Otello'' and the title role of ``Falstaff'' for the stage-commanding Frenchman with the refined voice.

Creating operas in the 20th century has been such a trouble-plagued enterprise that it's hard enough to get a new work written and produced at all. The composers are few who have the luxury of writing a role for a specific singer in a work they can be sure will be produced.

The one glorious exception is Sir Benjamin Britten, who left us 10 full-length operas, and in every one there was a major role for his colleague and lifelong companion, tenor Peter Pears. The first, ``Peter Grimes,'' premiered in 1945. In honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary, the Metropolitan Opera has revived its 1967 Tyrone Guthrie production, which runs through Jan. 3. The performance testifies to the advantages and disadvantages of a role becoming closely associated with the artist who created it.

Peter Grimes is a brutish, tormented fisherman who lives in an English fishing village in 1830. Strangers don't come to this remote Suffolk village, so the villagers must look among their own ranks to find an outsider. Grimes is an ideal candidate, a reclusive man with a temper. First one and then another apprentice has died suspiciously under Grimes's charge. Only two people in the town attempt to befriend him: a retired skipper and a widowed former schoolteacher. Both are powerless in the face of Grimes's obstinacy.

Britten created music to convey the character's moods. One moment Grimes erupts with white-hot anger; then he is overcome with poetic agonizing; finally, he becomes unhinged in an unaccompanied mad scene.

Pears, with his reedy, luminous voice, brought an otherworldly poignancy to his interpretation. He made a pathetic, pitiable Grimes. In 1967, Pears recorded the role with Britten conducting. At the time, it seemed the final word.

That same year, however, another great tenor, the Canadian Jon Vickers, grabbed Grimes by the collar of his fisherman's peacoat and made the role his own. With his heroic Wagnerian voice, Vickers turned Grimes into an anguished outcast, screaming as his knees gave way under the weight of the world. Like the sea itself, Vickers's voice lapped, crested, and pounded Britten's music into submission.

At the Met, Grimes is played by the eminent English tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who was impressive last season as Aschenbach, the aristocratic hero of Britten's last opera, ``Death in Venice,'' also a role created by Pears. But Rolfe Johnson's Grimes is not as successful. The performance I heard was an intelligent and deeply felt performance. But Rolfe Johnson's portrayal lacked stature. His Grimes was too inconsequential to carry the emotional baggage of this tragic hero. In a way, the burden Rolfe Johnson seemed to be carrying was the legacy of Pears and Vickers.

Rolfe Johnson was not helped by conductor James Conlon, whose approach to the piece seemed obvious and melodramatic. Britten's music has moments of frenzied drama; but overall, the score is oddly restrained, almost repressed. In Britten's recorded performance, the music - with its pungent dissonances, its ironic use of folk tunes and neoclassicism, its skittish eruptions - can sound shocking at times. But never obvious, as it did here.

Carolyn James, substituting at the last minute for an indisposed Renee Fleming, sang the role of Ellen with too much emotive vibrato. Alan Opie as the tough-skinned retired Captain Balstrode sang with dramatic presence. But, in a way, the other major protagonist in this drama is the entire chorus of villagers; and the Met chorus sang with staggering collective power. Yet, the drama of the performance seemed stock; and the poor enunciation of the text made it nearly impossible to follow the nuances of this subtle work.

Still, it's been 11 years since ``Peter Grimes'' was last at the Metropolitan; the chance to hear this astonishing opera is always an occasion, even in this less-than-ideal production. And you have to admire Rolfe Johnson for taking on the role, and the legacy. He deserves an opera written just for his special gifts.

* ``Peter Grimes'' can be heard in a live radio broadcast this Saturday, Dec. 31, at 1:30 p.m., on the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Radio Network.

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