domenica 1 luglio 2012

Engaging and Moving in Music and Vision 28 maggio

Engrossing and Moving


for a new production of 'Peter Grimes'

In terms of productions and performances, Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes is one of the twentieth century's most successful operas, after those by Giacomo Puccini and by Richard Strauss. Britten was in his late twenties when around 1941 he started working on it, after a musical comedy, Paul Bunyan, which had been a flop in New York (and would have to wait until 1976 to reach London's West End). Christopher Isherwood had declined to write a libretto on the rather ambiguous poem The Borough (a very critical look at the then emerging middle class) by the late eighteenth century misfit George Crabbe. Montagu Slater took up the slack and the challenge. The original 1945 Sadler's Wells production was a tremendous success; during the following five years, Peter Grimes was seen and heard on all the world's major stages. Only La Scala understood the importance of the opera later: after three performances in Italian in 1947 (badly wanted by the conductor Tullio Serafin but not appreciated by the audience, the box office or even by the press), the opera was staged only in 1976 and in 2000 -- both productions were imported lock stock and barrel, from London's Royal Opera House (1976) and from Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera (2000). This is the first time that Peter Grimes has been produced by La Scala on its own account as a part of a series of Britten's operas offered to the Milan audience. The production may travel abroad. This review is based on the 22 May 2012 performance.

John Graham-Hall in the title role in Part I of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

M&V subscribers are most likely quite familiar with the opera, an uncompromisingly East Anglian drama but with universal meaning about the petty hypocritical violence toward a fisherman who is 'different' from the rest of the crowd of a small microcosm, The Borough. In the opera's prologue and in the six scenes, the overall atmosphere hovers close to the ear, whether in orchestral tint (the well known Sea Interludes) or in extended lyrical episodes (eg the embroidery aria) or in a large scale concertato (eg O Tide that waits for No Man to Spare our Coasts). Every scene, every turn of the opera, has had a major imprint on any music drama written and composed since then. As a chorus opera, it belongs as much to the men and the women of the little gossipy village as to its hero, the despised, and maybe despising, Grimes. The resident folks of the Borough fill the stage with curiosity and intolerance (and a lot of sex under a puritan cover), but we are far away both from naturalism of the verismo era and from post-romantic melodrama. In 1945 Britten used an entirely new musical language and style to depict Grimes versus all (with the exception of the understanding widow school teacher) and all versus Grimes. A brutalized, ostensibly insensitive fisherman, he is first seen at an investigation about the death of his apprentice. The Borough claims it is murder, for Grimes it's only a sea mishap. There is no indictment, but Grimes becomes the pariah of the village until his suicide and the return of peace and calm.

A scene in Part I of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

For nearly twenty years, performances in English were dominated by the tenor voice and personality of the late Peter Pears, Britten's lifelong partner. The role has, since then, been taken up by Jon Vickers, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Philip Langridge and Ben Heppner. Although Peter Grimes is, as mentioned above, a tenor and chorus opera, the school teacher Ellen (a dramatic soprano) also has an important part. It requires a rather special tenor voice, both heroic (nearly Wagnerian) and lyric (bordering on Puccini but also with echoes of Purcell) as well as rather melodious (eg in the arioso Now the Great Bear and the Pleyades in which the protagonist signs repeated E's over a four-part canon in the strings). What tends to distinguish Britten's protagonist from other 'outsiders' in the operatic world (from Rigoletto to Wozzeck) is his sensitivity; also parody and even caricature are the prime feature of his opponents (the citizens of the Borough). The whole opera is an extended working out of degrees of interaction and confrontation between personal needs and collective convictions. This makes Peter Grimes less conventional in structure than other twentieth century operas on similar subjects, such as Janácek's Kát'a Kabanová and Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg. Only Billy Budd, another Britten masterpiece, carries the same load of innovation, on a similar topic.

John Graham-Hall as Grimes and Francesco Malvuccio as The Boy in Part II of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

After the curtain falls at the end of the opera, the audience is left to decide whether the protagonist is to be blamed or pitied. Thus, the ambiguity is carried through to an open ending. The incredible vitality of the score creates an experience that rarely fails to grip in a live performance. The action evolves through orchestral preludes and interludes as well as characters embodied in at times florid vocal style.

John Graham-Hall as Grimes in Part II of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

Richard Jones' staging (sets and costumes by Stewart Laing, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, choreography by Sara Fahie) has two basic flaws: firstly, the plot is set roughly in our own time, whereas the libretto specifies that the action evolves during a few days around 1830; secondly, on stage there is no East Anglian sea but a lower middle class tenement. In general, I do not mind when operas are set in a modern context, especially if they deal with universal values, but it is difficult to understand the crux of the matter -- all against Grimes who is 'different' (considered 'deviant') and the 'different' Grimes against all, in our tolerant twenty-first century. Also the dark Suffolk sea, its smell and its violence during storms all form an integral part of the drama as well as of the score. They are replaced by plastic seagulls on the roofs of what looks like a lower middle class suburb with a big building, a community hall, a pub, a church and a large courtyard where fishermen's nets ought to be being made. Also, the pub looks like a diner on a major US highway, where quite a few erotic activities seem to be going on, nearly in front of everybody's eyes, which does not make plausible the Borough's hatred and violence against Peter Grimes, considered, rightly or wrongly, to be a sadistic homosexual. Granted these two flaws, the acting (and the dancing) reveal a very accurate stage direction, a lot of imagination and long rehearsals.

The East Anglian coast and the North Sea are not visible on stage but they are powerfully depicted in the orchestra pit where Robin Ticciati (soon to be Glyndebourne's musical director) gives an exceptional reading of the score from the pervasive dissonances of the introduction and prologue to the 'dawn music' and the choral stanza at the end of the third act. In recent times, seldom has the sound of the La Scala orchestra been so round and so engrossing. Seldom has the balance between the pit and the stage (crowded with several soloists and chorus) been kept so well. Seldom have the solo instrumental parts been given such a splendid light. After so many would be enfant prodige in La Scala 's pit, the young British conductor provided a real lesson in musical direction of a complex music drama. At the end of the performance, the normally rather cold La Scala audience was quite moved when a real ovation to Ticciati and the cast (including the stage director) erupted.

John Graham-Hall as Grimes and Francesco Malvuccio as The Boy in Part II of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

As indicated above, Peter Grimes is a tenor and chorus opera. John Graham-Hall was the protagonist with the burden of faring well as compared with his distinguished predecessors in such a very taxing role: He did not attempt to imitate Pears or Vickers or Langridge. Instead he provided a very personal interpretation, almost a chameleon in the ability to change register -- eg from the most sustained expression of vision of happiness in a future with Ellen to the Sprechgesang in his confrontation with the apprentice to the final arioso that flowers into lyrical phrases.

John Graham-Hall as Grimes and Christopher Purves as Captain Balstrode in Part II of Benjamin Britten's 'Peter Grimes' at Teatro alla Scala. Photo © 2012 Brescia and Amisano. Click on the image for higher resolution

Susan Gritton is an effective Ellen from the arioso 'Let her among you without fault cast the first stone' to the climax of the final scene through the haunting four woman ensemble of regret 'From the Gutter' after the procession scene in the second act. The cameo performance of Felicity Palmer as Auntie deserves a special mention for her vocal and acting effectiveness at the age of sixty-eight; her voice filled the large La Scala auditorium in the caustic 'One of these rumours' concluding the opera. Of the many others, Christopher Purves was able to find the right balance between rigor and compassion as Captain Balstrode.

A final word for the co-protagonist: the La Scala chorus directed by Bruno Casoni.

In spite of the stage setting flaws, a memorable, engrossing and moving evening.

Copyright © 28 May 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,

Rome, Italy









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