Even though his cast is not made up of international stars, conductor Franz Welser-Möst's performance of Peter Grimes at the Zurich Opera is thoroughly gripping. He's fully effective across the score's broad expressive expanse, from conveying the elemental power of nature to the protagonist's anguish to the moments of pure silliness in scenes in the Inn. The orchestra of the Zurich Opera responds to his leadership with passionate intensity and high energy. The members of the chorus -- the townspeople of the Borough -- are essential in bringing the opera fully to life, and their singing and acting are stellar. Even the smallest roles are beautifully sung, and every chorus member is distinctly and individually characterized. Few of the smaller roles are taken by native English speakers, but the diction is consistently clear and absolutely convincing. Among the secondary characters, Liliana Nikiteanu as Auntie, Sandra Trattnigg and Liuba Chuchrova as her "nieces," Richard Angas as Swallow, Cheyne Davidson as Ned Keene, and especially Cornelia Kallisch as Mrs. Sedley are memorably and vividly portrayed. Alfred Muff's Balstrode is kind and understated, and he sings with warmth, but he's not particularly forceful. Emily Magee is ideal as Ellen Orford: earnest, compassionate without being naïve, with an earthiness not usually associated with the role, and she sings with exceptional richness. As Peter Grimes, Christopher Ventris is fully successful vocally, singing with all the strength and intensity the role requires, but dramatically, he's less effective. He's a fine actor and expresses Peter's anger and frustration, but temperamentally he's not ideally suited to the part; he doesn't seem to be driven by the inner demons that make Peter such an outcast, and he appears to be such a regular guy that it's hard to see what could have initially kindled such fierce animosity in the townspeople.
The visual production suffers from not having a dramatically compelling central character. There are other elements in David Pountney's production that make it more interesting than viscerally engaging. His decision to keep some townspeople on-stage through the entire opera was risky, and as executed, it's not fully effective. The intent must have been to convey the influence of the townspeople's opinion, even when the main characters are ostensibly alone, but the people on-stage throughout appear so benign -- reading, mending nets, sewing, napping -- that they don't suggest any sense of menace. Otherwise, Pountney's direction is largely naturalistic and engaging. The single multilevel set, by Robert Israel, is striking and in keeping with Pountney's vision. Chairs (occupied by the omnipresent townspeople) are set at various heights around the stage, and back projections of the moon or the sea change with the scenes. Much of the opera's drama depends on the contrasts between various specific times of day, and the designers don't successfully convey those distinctions. The production is fully satisfying musically, but dramatically it's missing the coherence to grab the viewer in the way that the opera is capable of doing.