16 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes at the MET
Let us, for one example among many, take the capstan song in Act I.
After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.
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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.