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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

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Collective action: Villagers in the story of "Peter Grimes" believe the titular character is guilty of murder. In one scene (above), they corner one of Grimes' defenders, Ellen. CHIKASHI SAEGUSA

NNTT kicks off its season with a grimy tale

Staff writer

It is painful to observe the process of social ostracism as it happens, and that could be because it strikes a chord with anyone who sees it.

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Standing alone: Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton plays the title role in "Peter Grimes." CHIKASHI SAEGUSA

This is exactly the story of Peter Grimes, the main character of the opera bearing the same name. It is this piece by British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76) that opened the 2012/13 season Tuesday at New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT).

"It's a challenge to our limit," says Hirofumi Misawa, chorus master at the NNTT. He explains that the choir of "Peter Grimes" is different from that of other operas, such as those of Giuseppe Verdi's, in which the choir members sing while basically standing still.

"In 'Peter Grimes,' each choir member is required to perform theatrically as a member of the village and move properly in a group while singing complex passages in chase and harmony," Misawa says. Actually, that 60-member group appears like a swarm of insects or a monster writhing around on stage while they whisper their gossip and sing out taunts, which did wonders to convey the cruelty of the bullying Grimes is subjected to by his fellow villagers.

"Peter Grimes" is set in an English fishing village on the North Sea in the 1830s and details how Peter, a fisherman, is driven to a breaking point by villagers who suspect him of being a murderer.

The opera's setting is reminiscent of Aldeburgh, a village on England's eastern Suffolk coast, where the composer spent the latter half of his life in a relationship with his partner, tenor Peter Pears. It is because of this that the work is often regarded by critics as an allegory of homosexual oppression, though the composer's own summation of the work was simple: It's "the struggle of the individual against the masses."

Britten's own experience (of living on the coast) is reflected in the flourishes of his music, powerfully conveyed in the way he expresses the nature of the sea — its endless waters and storms represent terrible power, but contrast with its beauty at dawn or in the moonlight. This is all masterfully performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of British conductor Richard Armstrong.

The theme of land and sea was suggested at a press conference for the opera held last month at the British Ambassador's residence in Tokyo. Ambassador David Warren and NNTT's artistic director Tadaaki Otaka pointed out that both Britain and Japan are island nations, which is reflected in the characteristics of their local communities.

"What is important is the relation of the people to the sea," says Willy Decker, the German director who is staging the NNTT production. "The people need the sea because they live by and off it. But on the other hand, they have a fear of the sea. Grimes is not afraid of the sea, he goes out to sea during a storm — that's the big difference. Where land and sea meet, there is a conflict between these two elements. It is similar to the conflict between society and Grimes."

While the sea is a strong thematic element in "Peter Grimes," the story emphasizes the dark side of humans, traits shared by the villagers as well as Grimes, who is unsociable and impetuous.

"Grimes is very hard to find sympathy for, but there are small places in his character where we can sympathize," says Stuart Skelton, an Australian heldentenor who plays the title role (a heldentenor is a tenor who has a dramatic and powerful voice and who is often featured in the repertoire of German romantic operas).

"When we see his frustrations with himself," Skelton continues, "we could think that Grimes realizes that his way of treating people does not work."

In one scene where Grimes is shunned in a local pub, he sings the song "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades." Skelton is adept at performing the piece delicately while conveying a powerful impression that could win the audience over to Grimes' side, while just leaving the villagers irritated and believing him to be mad.

Skelton, who has performed this role under various directors, points out the challenge in performing on Decker's minimal stage, which is mostly an empty space.

"On a minimal stage everything you do, even a small action, shows up," Skeleton says. "So, little details take on a lot of importance to make this opera work."

Skelton is joined at the NNTT by English soprano Susan Gritton as Ellen, the only character who supports Grimes. Gritton delivers a marvelous performance as a heartbroken woman whose actions serve to amplify the greater tragedy.

NNTT is staging "Peter Grimes" for the first time and as part of the British Performing Arts Festival, which is part of a special year of cultural promotion in Japan to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It also marks the NNTT's 15th anniversary.

In a country like Japan, where bullying has become a particularly common problem, it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to "Peter Grimes," especially when the question of fault is so muddled.

"It's not easy to answer the question of whether Grimes is guilty or not," Decker says, adding that the outsider who is bullied by society was an eternal subject for Britten. "The opera should provide answers on a much more profound level."

"Peter Grimes" is performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo in Hatsudai on Oct. 5, 8, 11 and 14. Tickets are ¥1,500-¥26,250. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/english .

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