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.

Friday, November 5, 2010

HGO Peter Grimes - starkly retold tale of mad fisherman, starring Anthony D. Griffey 31.10.10

Fourth in a series of the operas of Benjamin Britten, conducted by Patrick Summers and produced thus far by Neil Armfield, this is also the first chance to have seen Peter Grimes at the Wortham Center - Grimes, Britten's second opera, first success at writing one - the earliest composed of collection presented here thus far. Armfield has enjoyed practically unqualified success with both Midsummer Night's Dream and Turn of the Screw and close to as much with Billy Budd, that opened the series in April of 2008.

Peter Grimes however posed a few problems, given concept with which Armfield and designer Ralph Myers commenced. Costuming and acting, updated to time of the work's composition, near end of World War Two, were as realistic and nearly fully believable as before in his work here. Acoustically, this production worked better than recent Grimes from the Met in which Anthony Dean Griffey also played the lead - for not going with wall to place all the way across, near very front of the stage, against which for orchestra and voices to project and ping too much. Where Armfield fell slightly short of the mark here was in treating Peter Grimes as near as much of an abstraction as characterizes Britten’s mid-to-late 1950's Turn of the Screw and Midsummer Night's Dream.

The idea here, though communicated vaguely, of playing Peter Grimes as play within a play - or of approximating such a concept - was not bad – but still one that has been tried before - to varying degrees of success and failure. One had subconsciously to react i to how the people appearing to be playing the real characters on stage were perhaps instead to an extent reacting to doing so as just real people. According to what Everett Evans cited from program notes, there was perhaps a little firsson in catching a group of such players assessing for 'final run-through' of sorts what is each of their best feet forward in getting the audience to react to story being presented as well as possible.

One spent the opening courtroom scene, trying to assess as best as possible, with most of the cast, including Grimes in the front row all arranged in straight rows for seating area, with nobody else so prominently seated as that. Hobson and Swallow, conducting proceedings, got stationed right at front, apart from the seating area. Most chairs during the first interlude were then moved off to have just a few positioned on bare wooden floor of town hall auditorium as one might position them out on a deck.

The set design only became oppressively monotonous for Act Two, Scene One, where perhaps at an angle, some perspective could be allowed to inculcate church facade - perhaps diagonally across one corner extra prop or two to indicate (plan for) town square. Conventionally set, the church facade, combined with voices emerging from behind it create a complete frisson between what is going on inside and then privately roadside. Once set design for the second scene of Act Two, with profile for Peter Grimes's drab hut pulled forward, Armfield's intent then became clear in remaining so abstract for scene previous; the idea still wearied the eye.

Together with Summers more concise and relaxed with this score's often elaborate demands, the opera’s last three scenes worked consistently better than, as all taken together the first four. Just one further allowance that could have been made was to open things up - toward sense of wider space to better indicate some sense of outdoors into which for boy to make his tragic exit - and through which for Grimes to make his final exit too. Long tables brought on and offstage, arranged in various ways, over which got laid out fishing gear, served as metaphorically abstract construct of sorts. Talk, as led by Anthony Freud and Patrick Summers after the show, discussed 'a breaking down of the fourth wall' a la Brecht, yet Armfield’s engagement with the audience seemed timid. Having mysterious silent figure, to represent the original author George Crabbe, eventually making it seem he was directing some of the action onstage, still left whatever concept being played out slightly vague. Not successful was having group of children run pell-mell back and forth across the stage for 'Sunday Morning' - evocative interlude starting Act Two and also to contrast with both the darkness of both preceding storm and dramatic situation to follow. Such gesture only communicated expectation that the audience will be bored, without something to constantly engage the eye.

Even with various problems pointed out here, the acting of both principals and supporting cast on stage, seldom held back, was both realistic and often lively - with costuming (Tess Schofield) very capably complementing expected action on stage. Lighting (Damien Cooper), if conventional, slightly gimmick laced, worked, except for having to cover excessive empty space for first scene of Act Two.

That this was Patrick Summers's first attempt at conducting Peter Grimes was certainly remarkable. And yet revealed again was his way of relying upon as a crutch certain affectation toward especially drumming up what will feed back contrived excitement instead of real. Good color from the brass enhanced atmosphere for 'Dawn.’

What might have made one’ look askance toward orchestra pit was mishandled rhythm at quartet started by Balstrode ('I'll give a hand’ - Act One, Scene One); Summers started clipping it. The lean quality of orchestral forces for this downtown is likely influence toward such perception here. Indication is here - fine here that rope merely got pulled manually across stage – of winding out of rope meeting resistance against a rotating capstan - with Britten marking strings and lower winds with slightly awkward accenting to depict the mechanical resistance.

What could have led Summers slightly astray here was Peter’s light calling out for helping hand right before. I sought out – suggesting Glyndebourne, thus perhaps idea close to mindset of Summers - the EMI Haitink recording. There is a subtle push forward toward end of this passage,, but Haitink slightly more gets marked indication there exactly right. Poise reinstated itself here well before Ellen's 'Let her among you without fault;’ - of which Katie van Kooten made firm entreaty; there are many others with similar bad habits on many prominent podiums today.

Jagged writing for’Storm’ i took on two-dimensional perspective – after exaggeratedly hectic ‘Look! The storm cone’ ensemble, with internal proportions to both passages tentatively profiled. ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ got pushed excessively - as to apologize for its unbuttoned jauntiness. Most glaring however was hurried coasting through climactic moment right before Grimes enters Auntie’s pub from storm outside – that all got deflated here. Sustaining some integrity through everything was still some grasp of atmosphere and of dramatic situation at hand. All then comfortably fell into place for Summers for the final two acts of Peter Grimes; such issues almost never arose again.

The Passacaglia - opened nobly by viola solo (Eliseo Salazar) - had fine shape. Mystery, solemnity, of ‘Midnight’ to open Act Three was complete, as was the weirdness of the sixth interlude – excusing questionable intonation from violin first stands – and distraught, measured feeling for choral postlude for return to work immediately following the tragedy that has just transpired. Chorus, as prepared by Richard Bado, was consistently excellent, as was also the decision to place the pub band music in first scene of Act Three backstage. Movement about by the chorus for especially the gathering about for confrontations in Acts Two and Three proved the professionalism of also their stage direction evening long.

Anthony Dean Griffey began the role of Peter Grimes as practically just face from among the crowd, betraying on purpose slight nervous unease and struggle to maintain poise on the stand. His early unaccompanied duet with Ellen Orford had the requisite long-breathed legato - making fine shape of this haunting passage. There was here poignantly desire felt to retain some civility in interaction with community at large and good anxiety expressed with recall to Balstrode of the day one earlier tragedy struck.

The only thing that really misfired for Griffey here – moment as cited above prepared weakly by Summers – was ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’ (monologue), that for dressing it up a bit much with nuance, it then missed the focus, moreover eerie calm it must convey to make its impact. Exits off-stage with the boy - boy running off behind Grimes both into the storm and halfway through Act Two, rang somewhat false. Vocally most of all, the welling up of anger in this Grimes Griffey made something with which to contend during tense scene with Ellen in Act Two. Griffey was conscientious about humanizing Grimes, even while scolding, blaming the apprentice for his own woes; he then found his métier in freely expanding out vocally for berceuse to follow – intimate picture of Grimes from dreams he softly recalls, assessing what should lie ahead.

Groffey’s technique is quite individual –in his broad formation of vowels to help expand out sound below the break – a mild telltale hint of juddery vibrato only slightly intrusive thus far. Above the break, he lightens things just right, even often incisively, as proved very effectively, flexibly true for interpretively triumphant mad scene near the end. His long-breathed legato for both long melisma toward end and reprise of ‘What harbor shelters peace’ during moments of relative lucidity contrasted strongly with intimately detailed picture Griffey painted of imbalance and hysteria - the derangement that has usurped the mind of the lone and troubled fisherman by this point. Sense of helplessness was complete with Griffey’s dazed appearing, almost robotic final exit to sink his boat as ordered by Balstrode. Memories of seeing Jon Vickers in the part thirty-three years ago are not effaced or erased. Griffey however has nobly and very effectively found his own way for both acting and singing this most taxing part.

Katie Van Kooten, Hermia (Midsummer Night’s Dream) here before, portrayed a most sympathetic Ellen, making one feel this near as much Ellen’s tragedy as it is for Peter. She always made a beneficially striking lyrical vocal and stage presence. A little shrillness on top distracted only slightly from nuanced molding of the legato line – including for the ‘Embroidery’ aria. Her acting was most believable – attempt at firm resolve for Ellen to hold her ground mixed with vulnerability in Ellen’s inability to really comprehend what both Peter and she are up against, Among female leads, Meredith Arwady stood out as a blowsy, chesty toned Auntie, with direct, dour, all-knowing humor - at for instance ‘A joke’s a joke’, etc. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, good casting too, had the right look and menace as Mrs. Sedley, but while avoiding going over the top, vocally sounded reticent, held back, perhaps one cut too light for the part. The nieces, Kiri Deomarine, Brittany Wheeler (Houston Opera Studio artists) sang in tune with Ellen and Auntie for their very tricky quartet in Act Two, and made cheeky wit out of all the rest.

Christopher Purves, in his HGO debut, led supporting cast of men with a conventional Balstrode, with keenly observed sense of having been around – sufficient for ability to come up with clearly felt sympathy for Grimes and his plight – and with firm tone seasoned well with bluster or gruffness to entirely fill out the part. Liam Bonner looked dapper as Ned Keene, sang reasonably, physically acted the part well, without giving the apothecary as distinctive a vocal profile as have others. His droll alternating of interaction with Mrs. Sedley and scorn behind her back was spot-on.

Joseph Evans capably served as reticent and polite Rector. Beau Gibson refreshingly sang Bob Boles straight, giving the mugging and blithering that tends to follow Boles around the sick leave it deserves. Armfield and Gibson both found solutions as to how to depict the ridiculous hypocrisy of Boles without making it camp. Camp was a little unavoidable by halfway through Act Three for lawyer Swallow (Patrick Carfizzi), but with plummy tone and right lilt for dance step accompanying him, he effectively pulled off avoiding taking caricature to excess. He sounded stern, firm in interaction with Grimes, right past time the curtain opens. With sonorous tone laced with irony – alongside dependable Hobson (Robert Pomakov) – Carfizzi authoritatively pulled this off.

All in all, even if this drama having been prepared to surreptitiously creep up on one, then later to overwhelm us, this was an honest, forthright interpretation of Britten’s Peter Grimes from just abut all involved – several cut corners aside. Minor carping, criticism aside, Houston Grand Opera proved still quite worthy here of the challenge of having before hosted Jon Vickers, gracing the stage of neighboring Jones Hall for two runs both approximately thirty years ago.

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