Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes

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Peter Grimes at the Met: Grimes gets his last boy. (Racette, Griffey, Rhodes)

Montagu Slater, Libretto

Metropolitan Opera House, March 15, 2008, 1.30 pm (transmitted “live encore” in HD, March 29)

Donald Runnicles, Conductor

Peter Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Ellen Orford – Patricia Racette
Captain Balstrode – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Mrs. Sedley – Felicity Palmer
Auntie – Jill Grove
Niece –  Leah Partridge
Niece –  Erin Morley
Hobson – Dean Peterson
Swallow – John Del Carlo
Bob Boles – Greg Fedderly
Rev. Horace Adams – Bernard Fitch
Ned Keene – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
John – Logan William EricksonProduction – John Doyle
Set Designer – Scott Pask
Costume Designer – Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Designer – Peter Mumford
TV Director – Gary Halvorson

Peter Grimes‘ first performance in 1945 was a triumph, and the opera has settled into a secure place in the repertory—accessible to a broad audience, as its creators intended, but commanding respect among critics as a serious and important effort, considered by some to be Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece. The composer and his librettist, as well as his companion, Peter Pears, who premiered the role of Grimes and consulted during its composition, achieved a rare success in combining a leftist program of popular appeal, social criticism, and authentic tragedy—a feat many have attempted, but few have brought off. Inspired by the atmosphere of his native region around Aldeburgh, where he grew up and lived most of his life, as well as formative influences like Berg’sWozzeck, which left its mark almost everywhere in the opera, Britten took a section (Letter XXII) from The Borough by George Crabbe, the Aldeburgh-born poet and coleopterist, and, with the indispensible assistance of the left-wing writer Montagu Slater, transformed it from a black morality tale into the tragedy of an outcast who was hounded to his destruction by the hostile community into which he was born. Britten discovered the work through a radio talk by E. M. Forster, printed in a copy of The Listener he found in a Los Angeles bookshop during his abortive wartime exile in America. As a pacifist and a homosexual, Britten was able to project personal feelings of alienation into the creation of the character and the work. Britten’s background and the circumstances of his life flowed together with the leftist politics of his collaborators to energize a masterpiece.

If Britten felt out of place in America and found it necessary to return to his homeland, he found material support there which he could not have found at home. He had never had the means to write a full-length opera before, since he was constrained to earn a living by writing occasional music, some of it for cinema, mostly for the famous General Post Office Documentary Unit of the activist filmmaker and critic John Grierson, who, as a powerful force in the development of mass communication, doubtless influenced both Britten and Slater, who collaborated on Grierson’s Coalface in 1935. While he was in America, Britten came to the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, who arranged the grant which made Peter Grimes possible. The intention was to premiere the finished opera in the Theater at Tanglewood, but Britten’s return to England and war-imparied communications made it necessary for its first performance to occur in London, at Sadler’s Wells on June 7, 1945 under the great Reginald Goodall. It is worth noting that director Eric Crozier, following Britten’s wishes, mounted a dense and realistic set on a rather small stage with over 200 performers. The result was a powerful reassertion of British opera after a long period of dearth. The following year Peter Grimes had its Tanglewood premiere under Leonard Bernstein, paving the way for its first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1948. I stress this not so much out of regional pride, but as one more reminder of the historic importance of this and the other musical events that took place at Tanglewood.

Seeing Peter Grimes again, this time in John Doyle’s new Metropolitan Opera production with sets designed by Scott Pask, I was more than ever aware of the presence of Wozzeck’s ghost. Grimes’ perceptions of unmaterial phenomena, his idées fixes, and the  way the cards have been stacked against him all bring back memories of the unfortunate Wozzeck. In the music there is not only Berg, but scene-painting composers like Debussy and his English followers, Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge among them, as well as folk music and even American musical comedy, to which he was exposed during his sojourn in New York, when he also came to know Leonard Bernstein personally. In GrimesI could see both the powerful inspiration—for which Montagu Slater must share the credit, since it was his idea to make Grimes more of a victim than a monster—which created a modern tragedy out of the encounter between fearsome, amoral natural forces, the rigid, hypocritical code of the Borough, and Grimes, who is caught between them, his own unstable mind, and his unshakeable belief that financial success will win him acceptance. The forces which destroy Grimes are pretty much balanced between himself and society. In dramaturgical terms this means that society, that is, the Borough, play a group role in the opera, so tightly knit that they are a character unto themselves, however differentiated they may be in detail, in personalities like Ned Keene, Bob Boles, Auntie, and Mrs. Sedley.

On the enormous Met stage, John Doyle was able to deploy the chorus freely across and in and out of Pask’s set, a vast wall of weathered timber, inspired by the sail-houses which are so characteristic a feature of English fishing towns. Through this, they are able to create a claustrophobic effect in a large space. Up and across this surface, doors open and close, allowing members of the Borough to look down and observe Grimes and his doings coldly, without the slightest chance of becoming involved. The sail-house remains until the end of the performance until the very end, when it opens up to reveal the entire population of the Borough in a bleak maritime landscape. The only point at which this impressive design becomes awkward is in the Second Act, when we must forego Grimes’ picturesque hut, an upturned boat, and the door at the rear, through which the apprentice will fall to his death. The trap door in Pask’s set seems a clumsy expedient. Furthermore, there is little scope for intimacy, an essential part of Ellen Orford’s exchanges with Grimes and with Captain Balstrode. Otherwise the production was visually impressive and dramatically rich.

Stage movement, the acting of individual singers and the members of the chorus, was both fluent and penetrating, above all in the leads, Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford, and Anthony Dean Griffey and Peter Grimes. Racette’s beautifully vulnerable, but perfectly focused soprano was entirely at the service of her deeply human portrayal of the sympathetic, but not unrealistic Ellen. This must be one of the most fully developed characters in the entire operatic literature, and Racette was able to explore Ellen’s range of insights and emotions with understanding and eloquent expression. Griffey was able to muster a vast range of vocal color and expression to portray a tortured and deluded Grimes who is as much at his own mercy as at that of the Borough. Griffey’s intense commitment to the role obviously goes beyond mere professionalism. He has made something of a speciality of Grimes since he sang it as at Tanglewood as a Vocal Fellow in 1996 in a production celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic Tanglewood performance.

The secondary parts were all right on the mark and sung superbly, including a powerful characterization of Captain Balstrode by Anthony Michael-Moore, Jill Grove’s realization of Auntie in her full complexity, and a classic comic portrayal of Mrs. Sedley by veteran Felicity Palmer. Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ Ned Keene, John del Carlo’s Swallow, and Greg Fedderly’s Boles were all on the same high level of voice and characterization. The chorus was virtuosic in musicality and in diction, bringing the the mass psychology of the good people of the Borough fully to life.

Donald Runnicles’ reading of the score was no less committed and intense than Griffey’s singing, and he drew full-blooded playing from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Energetic, even ferocious rhythms were as alive for him as the most delicate atmospheric effects in the famous Sea Interludes. His control of tempo and shape was evident in his sensitive support of Racette’s Orford.  Again Grimes is obviously a work which has been very close to him for many years.

This Peter Grimes was a prime example of the contemporary Met at its very best—vocally, dramatically, and orchestrally at the highest level of professionalism and inspiration. What’s more, none of it was going to waste. A legion of video cameras around the stage and at the back recorded everything. At first, I found all this gear a trifle distracting, not to say annoying. It is hard not to become momentarily fascinated (in the word’s etymological sense) by the small robotic camera that sweeps left and right across the stage, or by two more robotic cameras at the right and the left, which rose and descended on enormous telescopic supports. On the other hand, it wasn’t all that easy to be distracted from such a powerful stage experience, and I came to terms with the machinery soon enough.

A fortnight later, however, I was intrigued to see that the result was being screened (as an “encore,” since it wasn’t really live) at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. I found it especially engrossing, since I had seen the performance myself. I was keenly aware throughout that I was witnessing a replay of an event I had already experienced. Seeing these very sharp images of the the production—which was something like taking birding glasses along to the Met—bore out my enthusiasm for the staging and acting. The robotic cameras were actually recording fairly subtle tracking shots, which were brief and discretely edited into the flow. The “taping” was an impressively sophisticated piece of work. The recorded sound was quite good. Directionality was reduced to mesh with the many different camera angles involved in this incredibly complex video production, and that was fine. Any other solution would have been distracting.  The Mahaiwe’s loudspeakers, in the brilliant and slightly dry acoustic of the hall, sounded hard, but not egregiously harsh. (These HD projections are a regular and significant part of the Mahaiwe’s winter program, and the management and board might consider investing in a truly state-of-the art installation, or rather one designed by someone who really understands sound.) Part of the intermissions were filled with a series of rather frenetic interviews conducted by soprano Natalie Dessay with more than a little redemptive charm. It was a nice trick to relay the showing of the broadcast from the local cinema in Aldeburgh. At the Mahaiwe the rather sensationalistic trailers reminded the more mature members of the audience of the Saturday matinées of their youth and aroused some not entirely benevolent laughter, but what is opera anyway? Or much of it let’s say. Both Slater and Britten benefitted from early experience in film, although. These HD broadcasts are no substitute for going to the opera, but they are fun in themselves. I’ll certainly come back.

Walking down Castle Street after enjoying this digital marvel, I could not help reflecting on what an abyss separated us, the audience, from the war-weary Londoners—Tories, Socialists and Communists alike—who were thrilled by that first performance at Sadler’s Wells some two generations ago. Britten’s masterpiece spoke across party lines in that politically charged era. Have we all fallen asleep since then, or what?

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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