16 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes at the MET
Let us, for one example among many, take the capstan song in Act I.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Let us, for one example among many, take the capstan song in Act I.
When I first heard the score of Peter Grimes on a recording, this grinding melody seemed an inexplicable change of rhythm. When I then saw the opera, in a naturalistic production (as most of them have been – a natural choice in an opera so free of hyperbolic, godlike characters, so full of pointed village incident), all became clear to me: Peter the fisherman, has tossed a rope from his boat onto the shore. In a tiny fishing village, every able-bodied person helps out – they will take the rope to the capstan on the wharf and wheel him in against the tide. But the villagers ignore Grimes the pariah, until some of the less snooty types, Balstrode (retired sea captain), Ned Keene (apothecary who caters to all appetites – licit and otherwise), and Auntie (the blowsy innkeeper who keeps a brothel on the side) take the rope and wheel Peter in, singing a song in proper style. Britten gave us landlubbers a glimpse of coastal life, revealed Grimes’s position as outcast, and introduced one of the dozens of fascinating moody, tangy, not quite pretty melodies that enrich this extraordinary score.
This is sung very well in John Doyle’s stylized staging at the Met – but what’s going on? The singers step in an ungainly fashion, in place – but there is no capstan. To anyone who has not seen a naturalistic staging, or who has not studied the libretto closely, or who hasn’t spent time in a seaport, the song, the moment, the drama go by the board.
This is my problem again and again with Doyle’s artfully pointless staging. In Act II, a boy falls down a cliff to his accidental death – a death for which Grimes will be blamed. But we do not see this – we hear the faint, thin scream and see Peter staring down a trap door. Unless you know the opera, you will not understand the scene. (Is this a theater piece or a concert?) In the last act, instead of coming upon the maddened Peter and trying to coax him home as in other productions, Ellen and Balstrode stand in doorways ten feet above him on the stage. There is no link. Ellen’s cry when Balstrode tells Peter to drown himself did not touch me – the only time it hasn’t. I don’t fault Patricia Racette for it – I fault her position on the stage, high in the wall of doorways. She should be reaching for Peter with the maternal instinct that is her nature, and only at Balstrode’s words does she realize – still instinctively fighting against it – that she can no longer save him. Worst of all, perhaps, is the great riot scene of Act III, scene 1 – when the townspeople howl for Grimes’s blood – the pacifist Britten’s disgusted tribute to the appeal of so-recently-defeated fascism. It’s not here. The chorus on a narrow apron of stage forms like a congregation, the individual characters stand like soloists in a choir – no turmoil, no orchestrated roister, no mob, no terror. It’s a tribute to choral study, not a drama, much less one of the most shattering moments of political theater in modern opera.
The musical forces performing this walled concert are in exceptional form. Donald Runnicles deftly weaves the orchestra into a nautical tapestry, and his light, moody touches are so effective I visualized the sea in its various moods and colors as Britten played his oceanic instrument. The uneven burst of bawdy tavern music, for example, that intrudes on the murky tides of the prelude to Act III, has never felt – sounded – looked – more like a picture, a video, an impressionist painting of lights reflected off a lonely pier into the dark, imponderable heaving sea at night. Runnicles leads a gorgeous performance, always light, always hinting deep, never slacking the tension; the Met orchestra play like heroes for him.
Anthony Dean Griffey has the sort of lyrical tenor Britten wrote for – a tenor much in the mold of Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and muse. The dreamy, fantastic side of this fisherman out of water comes through, but I could have used more of the hearty brute than Griffey is able to imply. It is right that he looks more haunted than the romantic leading man, but I never felt – as I did when, say, Jon Vickers sang the role – that Grimes’s apprentices, or Ellen whom he loves, or anyone else was in any danger from Griffey’s Grimes. He couldn’t hurt a sea urchin. I wanted more of the murderous determination that I heard in his performance as Abraham to David Daniels’s Isaac at Carnegie Hall in Britten’s Second Canticle. But he always phrased beautifully, and the soaring reaches of the part are within his compass.
Patricia Racette’s Ellen was a warm woman under rigid self-control – trying to persuade Peter to share her generosity of spirit, rounding on the townspeople who persecute him, and stuck up to no one – we would not expect a respectable schoolteacher to be on easy terms with Auntie and her “nieces,” but Ellen is no snob, and Racette gives us a rounded self that this fixed, awkward staging does not permit enough scope.
Among the opera’s many minor but important characters, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a great tall fellow with a great big baritone, made an auspicious debut as an unusually imposing Ned Keene; Anthony Michaels-Moore was an unusually subdued Captain Balstrode; John Del Carlo a Dickensian Lawyer Swallow; Jill Grove (who should be singing lead roles, as she proved in the Chicago Frau ohne Schatten) a wry Auntie; and Felicity Palmer girlish as mad Mrs. Sedley.
A scene from Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Twenty years ago, Met choristers told the New York Times that Grimes was their favorite opera, since they are not in the background of the plot but are actually the principal antagonist – the creature that destroys Grimes. They certainly sing the piece as if they loved it dearly. (Britten, like any great British composer, writes juicily for chorus. If you got it, flaunt it.) A friend pointed out to me at this performance that the orchestra is silent in most of Grimes’s mad scene – the only sound apart from his monologue is the spooky moan of the mob muttering “Grimes!” in the distance, one of the weirdest effects in all opera, wonderfully evocative of the sea in a fog. “But they’re giving him his pitches!” my friend realized. Britten combined the fog effect with the desired musical result. Now that’s genius.