The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

ENO Peter Grimes: Alden and Britten's dark night of the soul

Long expected by now that perhaps the socially correct way to approach Britten’s Peter Grimes is to stress more the poetic side of both the character and work, with sea still forming the dark orchestral backdrop. Tragedy at hand should then just simply play itself out against so much. Some of us got to see wherever Jon Vickers do Grimes; within his very individual approach there still remained much poetry. The affectation of Grimes being sophisticated either socially or culturally went by the wayside – apart from poetic knack to respond as Grimes does to sea, sky above surrounding him. Lyric of Chicago almost ten years ago featured Ben Heppner as Peter. His interpretation halfway effectively emulated that of Vickers.

In the thirty-two years since Vickers did Grimes in Houston – not to discredit Pears – I do not recall running across a performance of this anywhere (more recent than that of Vickers at Convent Garden) quite like what transmitted last week from BBC. No other performance of Grimes has felt led so much by who played Peter Grimes, as happened with Vickers. Here it was instead as led by conductor, producer, excellent Grimes, and strong supporting cast all working very closely together – for English National Opera’s very new David Alden production, with Edward Gardner conducting and Stuart Skelton strongly leading a fine cast. If such could be achieved merely by much loud playing and singing - with wall close to prompter's box against which voices and orchestra can ping - the Met’s Peter Grimes (also in HD) last year represented a high standard. Had ENO settled for this though, you would read something different here.

Benjamin Britten, when he wrote Peter Grimes, had not yet made the advances in his musical language evident in his Cello Symphony, Owen Wingrave, and Death in Venice. While still in his thirties, he had yet to establish himself, while already a very socially controversial figure. Edward Gardner set out, in very close tandem with David Alden to take a fresh look at Peter Grimes, just partly from perspective of what would follow later on from Britten. In assessing Gardner, supported by excellent orchestral playing throughout, I had to rethink a few criticisms I wrote down during Act One. Whereas there may have been some extra pushing and underlining of things, Gardner had really indeed the full and genuine impetus to do so in most instances.

Gardner, instead of guaranteeing us the cleanest or smoothest interaction between solo or choral and orchestral lines, made sure instead to point out, even irritatingly, the incongruity of interacting or confronting lines, for instance during Grimes telling Balstrode of day his first apprentice died. Motion of the waves in play with the steady, oblivious slow sea shanty of village folk at dawn Gardner also clearly delineated as musically incongruious, musically, but also in essence depicting the fragmented, tense state of village affairs. Britten said that he saw the townspeople in Grimes, as to their character and lives, as not so much shaped by the sea openly in their midst; they would indeed be the same anywhere one might put them. There was a claustrophobic feel to this performance, but observing parameters within which this work can still live and breathe – to readily be able to open out for moments of real pause for reflection on either what is happening or even well beyond what we see onstage.

Has there ever been a keener ear for clash of tonal centers in Peter Grimes between those one associates with the vision of Grimes and manner of the Borough than this? There was constantly here a full sense of the overtones infusing much Britten, of those pitches not written out, almost crying out to have been anyway. Gardner used such insight to enhance both the visceral quality of the drama and of Britten's music, as opposed to taking instead a heavy breathing method of doing so, rendering Grimes product of much tired cliché. Gardner very adeptly maintained wax and wane, natural ebb and flow all the way through. As opposed however to moment of repose that Runnicles found for Act Two, Scene 1 at the Met last year, Gardner ratcheted up the musical, dramatic tension of what indeed is the central scene here dramatically; action during this scene strongly helps catapult this tragedy forward.

The six sea interludes took on a dignity, nobility most unaffectedly almost unsurpasssably. Where there was the second or third mile to take to secure this, Gardner went there. Harmonic semi-tone clash at very end of Act 2 - with traces of Passacaglia still lingering most prominently in solo viola - extended out music we heard fifteen minutes earlier to the very end of the last phrase - sound still hovering all about to end of Act Two. Duet of French horns starting Act Two was emulated precisely expected bells ringing forth on a Sunday morning. The passacaglia, even with hard push made through its second and/or third variations, maintained fine poise and dignity. Gardner sprung rhythms very tight during Storm; contrastingly, the very peaceful yet simultaneously and insinuatingly ominous ‘Midnight’ starting Act Three Gardner characterized very well – with simplicity of an unable to be spoken meditative quality. Gardner also gave the sixth, unnamed Grimes interlude -incidence of fragmentation therein - a searing intensity – entirely up until very moment ball the orchestra drops out for final scene Grimes opens alone.

Stuart Skelton, with the intensity he brought to the title role, reminded one of Jon Vickers. He played Grimes alternatively as servile, deferential to his community, and very frightened. One might have asked for just slightly more space between lines during the mad scene. All both from looking deep within and intently at Peter Grimes score throughout Skelton made clearly heard. His voice, like Vickers, might not be ideally lyrical, from composer’s point of view, but he held what rough edge inherent to it in check. He thus fully evoked reverie within ‘the Great Bear and the Pleiades’ and then ‘dreams aria’ in Act Two, without employing quite as elaborate a range of nuance Vickers had commanded before. A greater simplicity of attack and with delivering numerous lines here, keeping Grimes still the rough fisherman, was very affecting.

Moments of violence in front of Balstrode during Act One – Grimes’ insistence on staying outdoors - and to close Act Two scene with Ellen Orford became nearly as terrifying as had it been Vickers. Heavy voice such as that of Skelton became entirely at service of both music and drama at hand. Skelton saw, slightly more than Vickers, feeling of extra need, even desire to conform to borough expectations – need to abnormally obsess over practical matters - in how he infused numerous lines. His dragging the beat emulating a distracted mind during ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ indicated how immersed Skelton had by then become.

Amanda Roocroft made a very affecting Ellen Orford, even if occasionally slightly tremulous up high. Brokenness over predominantly the plight of Peter Grimes and of the new boy became forefront. Roocroft also made entreaty to a stubborn and resistant Grimes most imploring right before tragedy would strike yet again. Her standing up early on to the borough conveyed equally strong resolve, indicating woman not yet unmoored from hope of fixing what is at hand.

Gerald Finley, at behest of David Alden, played Captain Balstrode somewhat unconventionally as a young man. Doing so paid off interesting dividends. Balstrode’s gravitas as such, but by now a cliché and often somewhat tired one at that, may have been diminished slightly, but Balstrode’s empathy for Grimes Finley made complete at about every juncture. Balstrode's sense of humor, light of the character having been through some real experience himself, Finley made vigorously emerge - as episodically that of Ned Keene. Keene’s dealing, as in good voice, with Mrs Sedley, Auntie and the Nieces, was a natural to Leigh Melrose and very witty indeed. Balstrode’s closing lines, while confronting situation well beyond what he can fully assess or comprehend - in the questioning tone and character Finley provided for moment to speak them - were torture to the listener. Balstrode ended up here near as much victim therein as anybody.

The whiney, androgynous sounding Bob Boles of Michael Colvin was very insipidly funny, whereas so easy to mistake for Mrs. Sedley. The hectoring, church style intoned Swallow of Matthew Best, alongside sonorous Hobson of Darren Jeffrey and banal friendly Rector of Stuart Kale, was equally humorous - with Swallow showing up in the first scene of Act 3 for barn dance in pink tutu over greasy suit. The two nieces, fine otherwise, became shrill during Act Two quartet with Ellen and Auntie. Rebecca dePont Davies, with great knack, took Auntie a little over the top, in sounding terribly inebriated while engaged in some pontificating. She then very adeptly took on the very experienced, incisive Mrs. Sedley of Felicity Palmer. Choral work was not quite ideal, but paragon of stability next to recent outings for Royal Opera choral forces.

Begging pardon for overlooking much fine work from ENO orchestral principals, there is one last musician to mention - David Alden. He was nearly as responsible for this having been the musical success this was as much as a dramatic one. He spoke interviewed, in manner however mildly misunderstood; I am sure David will not take umbrage. For David, Britten’s Peter Grimes speaks to the gay consciousness of the time; David then briefly related the difference between how things were while growing up and how they are now.

There should likely be no issue with how David speaks on this. I however find, fully acknowledging David, and his professionalism, something mildly disingenuous. One listened in vain on BBC for common mannerisms with choral outburst of ‘Home’ at the end of Act One and ‘Him who despises us’ in Act Three - instead all played straight. Alden could, by numerous means have insisted otherwise; so secure he is however in getting what he really wants, he did not. Alden also spoke in metaphor of Peter and the sea, as of tempest on boil within both. He helped choreograph ‘Old Joe’ during Act One abstractly along lines of what one might see from ‘Grandma’ (Ruth Berghaus) several decades ago - with healthy dose of American vernacularism thrown right in. It so effectively made something stiff, even geometric out of this, while maintaining very imaginatively much heightened musical and dramatic tension. Acoustical spacing of the apprentice boy’s scream right before Act Two ended also had to be very exact.

David Alden so successfully universalized the message of Peter Grimes, conforming well - clarified in Claire Seymour’s Britten’s operas survey - with what Peter Pears has notably said numerous times – of the supposed homosexuality of Grimes not being an issue; Pears said he did not consider it there in the first place. At issue here was not so much sexual preference per se, or oppression against such, but the issue of self-expression, the ability to see and live unencumbered in a visionary way. On the flip side, there is the compulsion to conform to equally codified, arbitrary standards in any society, including that of our very own.

Britten, as Seymour has also implied, in including a level of sexual overtone in his writing for the part of Grimes, may have behaved self-incriminatingly with including such into portrayal of originally the character out of George Crabbe. Take for instance even Grimes’s manic insistence on need to conform to Borough expectations and to be accepted. David fortunately in full intellectual acumen, great confidence and experience at his disposal, seems to have abstained somewhat. Not having yet seen this production, it is tricky to comment on the claustrophobia of the stage design as presented at ENO.

I may have come down a little hard on the Met’s new Doyle production last season. Difference between these two, from just hearing both, was that one settled for mere formula of stagecraft. David though was content only with being able to take all of Peter Grimes head-on - with strong yet subtle knack at it - much as he would have us face it. The failure, expressed here the best I have ever heard it in many years, of all ending in a combination of utter hopelessness, oblivion for, yes, deranged but simply noble a character as Grimes - with continuum to issue forth from following daybreak - was heartrending. The truth of what is still a problem, must rear its ugly head most likely numerous times again, before we may ever ‘get it.’

May we see this on dvd, also Jenufa from ENO, starring Roocroft, which may have first been presented by Houston Grand Opera. This goes down, as even taking one back a good thirty year, in still a new way a most meaningful encounter. Anything comparable recently may only include very recent revival of Messiaen's St. Francois - and Il Trittico last year from Milan.

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