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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Opera Review: A Fish This Big

Peter Grimes marks the Britten centennial at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Scallop, sculpture dedicated to Benjamin Britten, sits on the beach in his hometown of Aldeburgh.
The inscription "I hear those voices, they will not be drowned" is from the libretto of Peter Grimes.
Sculpture by Maggi Hamblin © 2003 the artist. Photo under license from Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera Peter Grimes remains the most enduring of the composer's stage works. One of the few major works from the mid-20th century that has a secure place in the international operatic repertory, it was the ideal choice for a celebration of the composer's 100th birthday on Friday night at Carnegie Hall. And there was no better choice for this tale of an individual against the oppression of a community than the St. Louis Symphony, here under the baton of its music director David Robertson.

Set along the same Suffolk seacoast that birthed its composer, Peter Grimes is the story of a poor fishing village ("The Borough") and its collective maltreatment of the title character. Grimes himself is a misanthrope and a loner, whose tragic end is brought about by the (accidental) death of two boy apprentices. Eventually, he is hunted down by the villagers, goes mad and (on the advice of his friend Captain Balstrode) commits suicide by scuttling his boat out at sea. The demanding title role was written for Sir Peter Pears, the singer who was Britten's lover and longtime companion.
Like Grimes himself, St. Louis remains the "outsider" among American orchestras. This is a polished, professional ensemble with a rich tradition and lush orchestral sound. And yet, they've never received the acclaim (or recording opportunities) lavished on bands from larger American cities. Here, they proved to be in top form, swelling and surging in power in the big storm scene in Act I, and providing impressionistic colors in the sea-scapes of the (relatively peaceful) Act II introduction. In the mad scene of Act III they were even conspicuous by their silence; as Grimes goes over the edge, there is no orchestra to catch him.

Anthony Dean Griffey remains a riveting Peter Grimes. This tenor does not have a conventional "heroic" voice, but rather the ability to inject meaning and passion into every word of the text. And yet, there is something endearing about this big angry man in a shabby sweater, the "picked-on" kid grown up with a sarcastic tongue and a fearsome temper. The concert setting, with the orchestra seated behind the singers was the perfect support for this performance, as Mr. Griffey charted Grimes' decline from gruffness to delirium, with the final monologue allowing the listener into the darkest corners of the character's psyche.

Grimes' peripheral love interest is Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmarm who might be the fisherman's salvation. Susanna Philips was radiant in this part, singing her Act II scene with Grimes' silent young apprentice with a voice that constantly shifted against different orchestral colors. This was in contrast to the "knitting" monologue of the last act, sung against a stark background in bleak colors. In a year of breakout performances for this young American soprano, this was an important dramatic role.

Anchoring the cast was Alan Held, imposing and rock-solid as Captain Balstrode, the retired seaman who sees something of himself in the isolated Peter. Meredith Arwady impressed as the shrewish "Aunty", so called because of her two "nieces" (Leela Subramaniam and Summer Hassan), working girls who keep the fishermen happy in the local inn. Patrick Carfizzi was full of tone and pompous as the philandering Justice Swallow, and mezzo Nancy Maultsby brought appropriately caustic tone to the gossiping Mrs. Sedley. David Pittsinger and Thomas Cooley were each outstanding as Constable Hobson and Bob Boles.

The small-town drama played effectively in the limited acting space on the lip of the Carnegie Hall stage. The only "set" was a few boxes. Characters with small parts (simply popped up from among the choristers. An entrance to Stern Auditorium (particularly the house left door near the stage) were used effectively for the back door of Grimes' hut, where his apprentice falls to his death. The back rows of the Parquet level, normally the demesne of concert photographers were used by the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for the church scene--their antiphonal prayers playing effectively against the dialogue of Ellen and Peter in the second Act.

Mr. Robertson is a skilled conductor, adept in the music of the 20th century and beyond. He has special, certain feel for conducting opera. The lanky California native drove his troops into a fury of sound, creating the illusion of tempests, salt spray and the bleak desolation of the Suffolk seacoast. In command of a full cast, huge orchestra and massive chorus, he excelled in not just leading but interpreting Britten's difficult music, reminding listeners of why this was indeed the most appropriate opera to celebrate the late composer's centennial year.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.