A British Opera, Still Gathering Fans, Arrives in Paris

Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” directed by Deborah Warner in her Paris Opera debut, reintroduces a 20th-century composer to French audiences.

A bloodthirsty chorus focuses its wrath on the outcast fisherman Peter Grimes, played by the tenor Allan Clayton, during a rehearsal for “Peter Grimes”  at the Palais Garnier.
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The bitter and bloodthirsty townspeople who make up the chorus in Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera “Peter Grimes” might feel like a sort of welcoming committee for the British director Deborah Warner, who is making her debut at the Paris Opera.

She’s more than happy to be rejoining the cold and stern world of “Peter Grimes.” It was a privilege to bring Britten’s work “more into the French consciousness,” she said in an interview.

This production, which she also directed in its debut at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2021 and at the Royal Opera in London last year, is for Ms. Warner the consummate example of a modern British opera still being discovered beyond Britain — and particularly across the English Channel in France, where Britten has intrigued many operagoers.

“Peter Grimes” tells the story of an outcast fisherman in a seaside English village who is accused of drowning his apprentice but is embraced by the sympathetic Ellen, who later begins to suspect that he may indeed be a villain. The townspeople turn on Grimes as the opera spirals toward its tragic climax. The production, with Ms. Warner again at the helm, has a slightly different cast but with the tenor Allan Clayton in the title role as before. It plays a total of nine performances at the Palais Garnier, Jan. 26 through Feb. 24.

“One of the things I love about an opera revival is that it’s a way of developing the piece, and to get it there and take it further,” she said by phone during rehearsals in Paris. “You might have 75 to 125 performances in the theater, but in opera you have far less.”

Her sense of rediscovery with “Peter Grimes” is what drives her passion for opera, which she admittedly came to after years of directing theater, often collaborating with the actress Fiona Shaw in a famous “Richard II” in the 1990s (in which Ms. Shaw played the lead) and “Medea,” “Mother Courage and Her Children” and others in the 2000s and after.

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“I was part of a big generation that were brought from the theater to opera, for me kicking and screaming,” said Ms. Warner, 63. “My parents didn’t listen to opera. I had no exposure to it.”

Mystery could also be at the core of Britten’s history in France, a country long known for its love of romantic opera. Britten had a certain amount of early success in France, as he did across the continent and the world, with “Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd,” written in 1951.

But the French “didn’t quite understand Britten, and he didn’t quite understand them,” said Paul Kildea, the author of “Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century” and the artistic director of Musica Viva Australia, in a phone interview from Melbourne. “There was always something dangerous about France.”

“He felt very trapped in England,” Mr. Kildea added.

France became an early influence for Britten in a way that many opera fans may not realize, Mr. Kildea said. He had his own sense of discovery as he began his creative life.

“He spoke French and went there in the early ’30s, and then later with his mother,” he said. “But the amazing moment for him was in 1937 after his mother dies and he goes to Paris and searches for Oscar Wilde’s grave, unsuccessfully and traumatically visits a brothel and tries to come to terms with who he is as an adult and a musician.”

Despite the mixed reception in England and France of the original “Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd,” about a handsome and beloved sailor and the master-of-arms aboard an 18th-century British naval vessel who is determined to destroy him, the French understood something a bit more subtle.

“I think the French got a lot of the gay subtext of ‘Billy Budd’ long before the English started writing about it,” he said.

The subtlety and obscurity of Britten’s work keep it interesting for Ms. Warner. She has never been as drawn to directing the grand Italian and French operas. Her first real exposure to the largely atonal opera style was Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” about a soldier’s degradation and demise.

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“I only liked ‘Wozzeck’ because I had worked on the [Georg] Büchner play of the same title, so I had heard the music and loved it,” she said. “Some of the more contemporary operas are the calling cards to woo the new generation, in my opinion, because they’re incredibly immediate and visceral.”

Coincidentally, Ms. Warner finds parallels between “Wozzeck” (which she will direct in a new production for the Royal Opera in London starting in May) and “Peter Grimes” (she also directed “Billy Budd” at the Royal Opera and has staged other Britten operas, including “Death in Venice” and “Turn of the Screw” around the world). She sees the chorus as a central and important character, and a dangerous and mistreated one at that.

“With Britten the dramatic mastery and the music mastery are equal, and he was searching for the same dark world that Berg was,” Ms. Warner said. “There is a remarkable similarity to the brutalized community that makes ‘Grimes’ work. The terrible behavior of this monstrous chorus has to come from somewhere.”

And that ever-present chorus presents its own set of challenges with mostly French singers delivering English words in the harsh and accusatory tones that Britten wrote for the townspeople’s descent on Grimes.

“The challenge of Britten in France is the language, but I don’t think the music is harmonically or rhythmically difficult,” said Ching-Lien Wu, chorus master for the Paris Opera, in a recent phone interview from Paris. “You have to not overreact to the music. If you sing a romantic Italian piece, you can do that. You can’t do that with Britten.”

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Over the decades, Mr. Kildea said, Britten’s contribution to opera has gradually become more a part of the repertory in French opera houses.

“It’s partly an aesthetic thing, because when they first took ‘Turn of the Screw’ to Paris in 1956, for example, it was just too far removed from the concept of grand opera,” he said.

“Britten wasn’t part of the French virtuoso. A lot of my French friends talk about stumbling upon Britten. They wouldn’t have had that exposure in school or on the radio.”

Ms. Warner sees the premiere of “Peter Grimes” at the Sadler’s Wells Theater in London on June 7, 1945, as a seminal moment in opera history.

“It’s a miracle that ‘Grimes’ is such a success,” she said. “This opera happened right at the end of the war. There we are with the grumpiest fisherman on the planet, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable and vicious and nasty story.

“The right people must have been in the audience that night,” she added. “We owe a debt of gratitude to those 800 people who were at Sadler’s Wells that night.”