Harper [1966]

Director: Jack Smight
Stars: Paul Newman, Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 121 minutes

More than half a century after stunning the music world at its 1945 premiere (just a month after the war had ended in Europe), Peter Grimes still overwhelms. It's anchored itself as arguably one of the top 10 works of music theater from postwar Europe. And you can easily experience why in a performance as focused, thrilling, and emotionally compelling as the present one (from the second Covent Garden production, mounted in 1975), with a cast of world-class Britten interpreters. A measure of the opera's artistic depth is the simple fact of how compendious it is, convincing in fundamentally divergent accounts, such as the original canonical Britten-Pears interpretation. At a far remove here is the equally legendary Peter Grimes of Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. Even distilled via a home theater system, you get a good sense of why so many longtime opera-goers still recall his live performances of the role as a touchstone of operatic power. Vickers brings his huge frame and voice to bear on all the contradictions that make this outcast so strangely repulsive and moving at the same time. His Grimes isn't merely a victim. This fisherman is implacably misunderstood, feverishly ambitious, gruff, gifted with a touch of the poet yet unable to connect, and ultimately--in a tour de force of vocal acting--hounded to madness by the centrifugal energy of his complex personality. Heather Harper exudes convincing compassion as Ellen Orford, the woman who hopes to save Grimes through her love, but she also voices a clear brand of fatalism that intriguingly links her to the townsfolk of the Borough, failing to see a way to break free from the pattern. Norman Bailey's Capt. Balstrode is a realist who tries his hardest to understand Grimes. The role of the Royal Opera Chorus in venting the village collective is crucial and effective--whether in innocent merrymaking, as a kind of Greek chorus, or as a malevolent moral majority in need of its scapegoat. A younger Colin Davis proves why he became known as a Britten specialist, leading a forceful, dynamic performance that explodes with violence and is keenly sympathetic to the score's symphonic web of texture. Elisha Moshinksy (who made his Covent Garden debut with this production) directs with grim and powerful delineation against a pared-down stage-set of boardwalk that becomes alternatively claustrophobic and barren, while Britten's brilliant music keeps the seascape ever present in the mind's ear and eye. --Thomas May

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