Women in opera lose their wits pretty regularly. With guys, though, lunacy is a sometime thing. But when it happens, it really happens. Cases in point: Three of the most important operas of the 20th century in are ones which the hero happens to run mad. ***image1***One of these opened the first season of the Santa Fe Opera, Stravinsky's

The Rake's Progress

. Another, Berg's Wozzeck, is no stranger to the SFO. And now after nearly 50 years, the third's come round at last: Benjamin Britten's

Peter Grimes

is one of those productions that will have people talking for a long time to come.

It's a tough piece to mount well. Britten makes major demands of his orchestra and chorus. The intensity and vocal range he requires for the title role are remarkable. His many secondary characters must be sharply individualized. But no problem. SFO's new mounting works on every level-musical, dramatic, emotional.

***image2*** Britten's appearances at the SFO have been noticeably infrequent up until now. It's reported that founder John Crosby had little affection for the man or his music. The composer's television-opera,

Owen Wingrave

, made little impression in 1973. Ten years later

The Turn of the Screw

was a critical but not popular success. The best Britten ever was a rollicking dash through the comic opera

Albert Herring

, directed by Colin Graham at one of the apprentice evenings.

Until now, that is. This is a


for the books. Alan Gilbert, the company's music director, deserves credit for pacing and vitality. Britten's score features a potpourri of folk tunes, hymns, drop-dead arias, dance music and six haunting, daunting showpiece interludes for orchestra. Gilbert shows how necessary those often-excerpted "Sea Interludes" are to their context, maintains a powerful dramatic pulse and leads the action with the tidal energy Britten requires. The SFO orchestra has never played better.

Nearly all Britten's operas are about outsiders, victims in one way or another of a society that just can't handle them.

Peter Grimes

is the first and probably the greatest of these, a loner, an illiterate fisherman, a visionary who belongs firmly in the English tradition of distinctive real-life eccentrics like, say, Christopher Smart and William Blake. Accordingly, Britten had Peter Pears's distinctive high voice in mind when he composed the role in 1945. Later, in the '70s, Jon Vickers made the character his own.

Now it's Anthony Dean Griffey's turn. He's a Grimes for our time, pathetic, monstrous, sympathetic, horrifying-a natural target for the fears and prejudices that too often bind a society together. Griffey is a big man whose sweet, multi-colored voice can rage and whisper. His inspired, demented aria, "Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades," frightens while casting a spell. Griffey acts with conviction. He demands our pity and gets it.

Only two other villagers of the Borough, the small-minded, storm-tossed Suffolk scene of the action, offer sympathy to Grimes. Christine Brewer sings a radiant Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress and would-be friend, even wife, to the hero. Her "Embroidery" aria in the last act is a wonder of phrasing and vocal consideration. Alan Opie as Balstrode, the careful protector and final counselor to Grimes, makes a kind, warm-voiced presence.

Britten's village is heavily populated with less sympathetic, though all-too-recognizable, characters, carefully delineated and, in the SFO's production, uniformly well-taken. Company stalwarts Kevin Langan and Judith Cristin embody Swallow the lawyer and Mrs. Sedley, the suspicious widow. Among the large cast, Keith Jameson is Bob Boles, the Methodist malcontent, and Richard Byrne sings the randy apothecary, Ned Keene.

Paul Curran makes his SFO debut with a clear, clean staging of the piece that always makes sense while giving first place to the music. His fascistic manhunt march of the villagers as they set out to destroy Grimes curdles the blood. Robert Innes Hopkins's set functions simply and well, as do his costumes, updated to the '40s.

A sufficiency of ghosts inhabits

Peter Grimes

-the hero's dead apprentices, the lost dreams that challenge his mind. I'll add a couple more spirits that may hover over this production, particular to the SFO and its connection with Britten. The late, great American soprano, Eleanor Steber made her final operatic appearance here in

Owen Wingrave

. The likewise late, great American bass-baritone, Donald Gramm, an unforgettable pillar of the company, sang Balstrode at the Met, with Vickers. He didn't have a chance to sing it here before his early death.