PRINCETON - The gale-like force of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes goes beyond the famous orchestral interludes evoking the opera's seaside weather. Few theater pieces of any sort reveal fishing-village sociology with such detailed psychology. And it's there that the Princeton Festival's current production of Peter Grimes, one of the few seen outside major opera houses, shows that expensive stars and scenery aren't necessary.
This Peter Grimes, which is repeated Thursday and Sunday, is unquestionably worth traveling for, but not for any of the trappings one is used to at, say, the Metropolitan Opera. Such elements are missed at first, but what emerges in their place is a stronger sense of narrative.
The smaller orchestra - 46 players, roughly half the size of the orchestra at the Met - allows often-hidden strokes of characterization to emerge. Without the granitelike charisma of singers such as Jon Vickers in the title role, the opera's balance falls more toward female characters, quietly tragic, retreating inward from the harsh world around them (rather than out to sea, like Peter Grimes). At the 1,100-seat Matthews Theatre in the McCarter Theatre, the Princeton Festival makes a case that Peter Grimes need not be grand in order to be great.
The Steve LaCosse production is updated to the time of the composition (the mid-1940s), with intimate details that render the small-town hypocrisy more vicious. Instead of the usual campy torches, crowd scenes take on more ghoulish images created by flashlights. Gender alienation is particularly intense in this production: Never do you see men and women in solid relationships. Attempts to rehabilitate Peter Grimes - whose boy apprentices die under such mysterious circumstances that he has become a local bogeyman - are grounds for being shunned by the villagers.
Under what must be budget and logistical limitations, Jonathan Dahm Robertson's somewhat skeletal set design chooses function over decoration - that function being to reveal what's relevant about characters and their many subplots. You might assume you'll come away with more answers regarding the Grimes psychology. Instead, what is unspoken in the opera looms larger. How do his apprentices really die at sea? What do the villagers really suspect about all of that?
Directorial touches went a bit overboard. The drug-addicted busybody Mrs. Sedley (Kathryn Krasovec) overdid the nervous mannerisms. As Ellen Orford (Grimes' woman friend), Caroline Worra achieved heartfelt vocal shadings conveying that, in Grimes, she sees her last chance for companionship. But the operatic sobbing goes way over the top.
Performance-wise, Act 1 was bumpy Saturday, and conductor Richard Tang Yuk's tempos lacked momentum. Acts 2 and 3 were like a different opera. Physical and vocal gestures were all of a piece (important in Britten, more than high notes), with Alex Richardson coming into his own in the title role. Occasionally, his midweight tenor was a bit overtaxed. But never did you catch him stealing phrasing ideas from more famous predecessors in his role. Particularly in his final mad scene, he forged his own realistic and utterly affecting way.
Eve Gigliotti (Auntie), Jessica Beebe (First Niece), and Sharon Harms (Second Niece) established themselves as important figures in the village landscape. And while the Princeton Festival Chorus sometimes seemed to be guessing at the tricky harmonies of Act 1, it seemed confidently possessed by the village's mob mentality thereafter.
Additional performances: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. Tickets: $30-$140. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org.