16 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes at the MET
Let us, for one example among many, take the capstan song in Act I.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
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.