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Preview: Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at WNO

Washington National Opera has finally gotten around to staging Benjamin Britten's landmark opera Peter Grimes, a production that opens this evening and runs for only six performances through April 4 (at the time of writing, only the March 29 matinee has sold out). The company is mounting its first production of Grimes, incredibly, only a few years after Santa Fe Opera, where this staging premiered in 2005, directed by Paul Curran. Some adaptation of the production has been necessary in Washington, because of the different nature of the Santa Fe theater, open at the back and sides to the desert wind. More about how how it worked out in my forthcoming review.

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Britten, Peter Grimes, dir. Elisha Moshinksy, J. Vickers, H. Harper, Covent Garden, C. Davis
Britten and Montagu Slater adapted the libretto (.PDF file) from a bleak story in George Crabbe's poem The Borough (a set of 24 letters about the village, with Letter 22 about Peter Grimes). It is set in Suffolk, Britten's natal landscape, and the sounds of the sea, pervading the score in six famous interludes, were part of Britten's plan from the beginning. That music is the incarnation of the mothering yet also menacing presence of the sea, which threatens literally to swallow the coastline of the borough and eventually does consume Grimes. Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, who premiered the title role, worked together to give the character of Grimes a rather different shape, a social outcast who longs for acceptance but can never find it in the hostile, gossip-governed borough. The chorus of citizens insists on their own moralizing superiority when they pass judgment on Grimes, but their hypocrisy is revealed as they commit their own sins of drinking, drug use, and sexual depravity.

My preparation for this review has included revisiting some famous interpretations of the opera, including Jon Vickers in this DVD from Covent Garden. Made in the 1980s, the performance by the Canadian tenor may not have all of the force of his legendary Grimes in the 60s, but it is still a rendition of enormous power. Vickers, a tenore di forza who sang a killer Radames and Tristan among other roles, was a brutish Grimes, with clarion strength quite different from Pears, with a large frame, rough face, and compelling acting. The staging, directed by Elisha Moshinksy, is full of drab browns and grays, with the vista at the back of the stage over the nondescript stage, from which fog creeps up and Grimes drags his boat. Colin Davis conducts the orchestra in a way that matches Vicker's strength, with volcanic surges during some of the interludes and imperious brass. So many fine conductors have recorded the score, including Britten himself, that it sets the bar very high for Ilan Volkov, the young conductor who led the NSO in a compelling program in January.

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Britten, Peter Grimes, dir. John Doyle, A. Dean Griffey, P. Racette, Metropolitan Opera, D. Runnicles
John Doyle directed a new staging at the Metropolitan Opera last year, the first new production in some 40 years, recently released on DVD. Where Curran's staging has clapboard fishing shacks that roll around with minds of their own and enclose claustrophobic spaces, Doyle embodied the oppressive borough hate in a looming, multi-story wall of dark wood. (For all the production's heavy-handedness, the Met DVD is much more satisfying than the Tim Albery production from English National Opera, mostly because of the latter's strange closeups and stills with bad video effects during the sea interludes.) The Grimes at the Met and Santa Fe was Anthony Dean Griffey, and he brought a much more reserved side of the role to the fore, the more dreamy, poetic part of the character suited to his sweet upper register, which almost evokes an abused choirboy grown old and bitter. Washington's Grimes, Christopher Ventris, who has also released a DVD version of the opera, has a similar vocal approach but is more distant dramatically.

The Met's Ellen Orford, Patricia Racette, will also sing the role in Washington, building on her rave performance as Jenůfa here in 2007. At the Met she was a warm, tragically misguided Ellen Orford, with my only complaint being the grainy quality of her voice that robbed some of the sound in the largest passages (by comparison to Christine Brewer, who sang the role in Santa Fe). Racette's Embroidery Aria and other quieter parts were exquisite, though. The bonus of these Met DVDs, which are recordings of the wildly successful digital broadcasts, are the intermission features, here hosted by Natalie Dessay, which give a backstage look at the Met stage. The final tableau, a scaffolding with models in modern clothing mentioned by reviewer James Jorden, disappeared after opening night and is not shown in the DVD either.

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Benjamin Britten - In Rehearsal and Performance with Peter Pears
On April 29, 1962, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears recorded a telecast of Britten's Nocturne for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra, op. 60, for the CBC in Vancouver. This DVD contains not only the performance but, most interesting, some of the rehearsal time Britten had with the orchestra beforehand. Bonus features include two selections from a 1959 CBC telecast recital of Pears with lutenist Julian Bream (Dowland and Rosseter airs) and an interview with Britten for a CBC program in 1968. Dowland makes an interesting point about government support for composers, stating that it is best to receive enough money to live on but not too much: "For if an artist has it too easy, sometimes he becomes a little glib. [...] He must trim his art into the form that is most suited for it." He also makes the following statements about writing for the voice:
I think that the human voice is the loveliest of all instruments. [...] I like the human being and his or her voice so passionately that I can never feel that I shall go into a studio and write electronic music. It is not going to have for me any magic. I think that the acme of perfection in music is the human voice singing beautifully beautiful music, whether it be one's mother over one trying to make one go to sleep when one is two years old and having a restless night or the Beatles, I don't know -- perhaps you will convert me to that.
Hopefully, the conservative Washington audience will defy expectation and turn out for Peter Grimes. Judging by the tongue-clucking I have heard from older opera-goers this month, WNO should make more inexpensive tickets available to bring in a hopefully more open-minded, younger audience.


Akimon Azuki said...

I saw the WNO Peter Grimes yesterday; really good attendance, and not just by the old musty DC crowd. I had the cheap nosebleed seats I secured last year, but I hope they will try to have more reasonably priced tickets available while people can still catch this show, coz it is frakking great. They should care less about getting money from ticket sales- I think that's probably a small part of their budget overall- but rather try to avoid empty seats at what is probably the best production they have ever done since I started frequenting the joint..

Garth Trinkl said...

The Washington National Opera did offer rare, advance $25 seats, for the first orchestra row, for all offerings of this season's Peter Grimes production. All of these seats sold out quickly, although some were available as recently as one month ago.

Perhaps our Washington National Opera company could experiment with a combination of limited, advance ca. $25 seats, and some form of 'rush' seats aimed at younger and other not yet committed opera goers.

This is what the Kennedy Center has done in the past (through coupon codes in the free morning WP newspaper) for its undersubscribed, visiting Mariinsky (Kirov) Opera productions. (Though I would hope that the KC would not need to offer $25 promotional offers to next season's Mariinsky Opera 'War and Peace', given costs involved and that fact that most of Washington's younger and older intelligentsia has read the book.)


Thank you for the preview and the review of this opera.