A Night at the Oratorio
March 5, 2008
One of the glories of our age is the new viability of Handel’s operas as mass entertainment. After many years of accepting the judgment of the audiences of his own time that his invention, the English oratorio, was where his main greatness lay, we have come to see what Winton Dean long since recognized as the musical and dramatic genius of Handel’s operas. A prime innovation of his oratorios was the role of the chorus, which became an actor in the drama rather than a mere commentator. Benjamin Britten, when he created his great opera Peter Grimes, took that aspect of his English heritage and inserted it back into opera.
In the current new production of that work at the Metropolitan Opera, we have rounded off the circle in one sense: though performed with costumes and a stark, semi-representational set, Peter Grimes seems to reveal itself as an oratorio rather than an opera.
To observe this is to slam neither the Met nor Britten. Concert performances of some operas are even more successful than staged versions. I leave it to others to decide whether Peter Grimes is one of those operas.