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PETER GRIMES at the Klavier. [Nov. 13th, 2010|01:51 am]
Last spring, Houston Grand Opera’s magnificent, provocative production of Tchaikovsky’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES gave me my most inspiring classical music experience in quite some time. I wrote at length about it here, and I’m sure I will be carrying the memory of that performance with me for decades to come.

My first HGO experience this season was, by contrast, a rather frustrating one: a brand-new production of Benjamin Britten’s PETER GRIMES.

It’s difficult to assess clearly my overall response, because it seems impossible to separate my reactions to the opera itself from the curious obstinacies of the production. So while some of my dissatisfaction is associated with the work itself, it’s difficult to discern to what extent I might have reacted differently to a more compelling production.

By way of full disclosure, I confess I’ve never seen the opera before, having only encountered it in the past from recordings and of course from the famous interludes, a staple of the symphonic repertoire. But I’ll say unequivocally that the orchestral writing is magnificent throughout this work. Britten was clearly one of the finest composers of the 20th Century, and of his voice-and-orchestra works, I consider the WAR REQUIEM a masterpiece, and have admired greatly much of his other vocal work. (But, conversely, I walked out of his A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at intermission, and was similarly underwhelmed by THE TURN OF THE SCREW when I saw it).

So as I sat in the audience through 3-hours-plus of this surprisingly dramatically inert behemoth of a piece, I had to confront head-on my ongoing assessment of Britten’s role not as a composer (where his achievement is sacrosanct) but as a theatrical composer. Despite there being so much tremendously well-wrought music throughout, the story and its characters leave us cold and uninvolved. Bewilderingly for a theater piece which takes on issues of child abuse, self-delusion, small town “mob mentality,” psychological damage and alcoholism (as well as also exploring more positive aspects of human relationships and community), the work as a whole is largely unmoving onstage.

It begins promisingly, at a village inquest that introduces the characters and the situation quite expertly with declamatory efficiency. My expectations were high. But that early promise dissipates as the work progresses, despite occasional standout moments of undeniable dramatic or emotional greatness: the tense gathering at Auntie’s tavern during a stormy night, a quiet scene between Ellen and the little boy on Sunday morning, and, best of all, an exquisitely moving quartet for four women which laments the apparent tragic futility inherent in bringing up children into adults and the emotional limitations of men.

But several of the most significant moments of high drama, at least in this production, ring strangely hollow for me, and Britten’s insistence on vocal writing which is largely more motivic than linearly melodic winds up undermining the ultimate full emotional potential of big moments such as Grimes’ famous soliloquy in the last act. Overall an enormous musical achievement? Surely. Sometimes dramatically impressive in certain ways? Yes. But truly moving emotionally and ultimately rewarding as a theatrical work? Sadly, no.

Indeed, we care about nobody in the story, excepting perhaps Ellen.

Montagu Slater’s libretto is fascinating and stunningly good, inviting comparison with Auden. It’s certainly all there in the libretto, and yet Britten’s writing, epic and herculean as it is, seemingly doesn’t provide a wide enough range of contrasts of approach to sustain a theatrical work of such gargantuan length. Even when Slater gave Britten ideal opportunities for exploring different village characters in different ways (for instance, in the tavern scene or in Act III’s opening scene), Britten for the most part did not take up those cues, and instead varies his language very little over the course of the evening. Yes, from a purely musical standpoint one can say that the work is “organized” very impressively in terms of its components. But from a theatrical standpoint, the rigorous “sameness” of so much of the language, even as attention shifts to colorful secondary characters, “wears us out” by Act III, rendering us far less receptive by the time the final histrionics unfold lugubriously.

In this regard much of the music for the character of Ellen stands out precisely because it DOES seek to clearly take us in a different direction, toward a kind of tenderness and compassion (and aesthetic “idealism” in the musical language), and that contrast helps the audience tremendously to attach itself emotionally to her part of the story. If Britten could have discovered even more contrasts in this way (more apposite rusticism for certain characters? More humor for other? It’s certainly there in the libretto), it would be far less fatiguing an evening, and Britten might have made a much richer palette of human experience available to the audience.

[This is probably a good moment to bluntly state that, despite my commentary, I acknowledge reverently that this is a tremendously ambitious and sincere and vital work on Britten’s part, a superhuman effort by any yardstick of compositional or artistic assessment. But despite comments I heard in a post-performance talkback about Britten’s status as the 20th century operatic inheritor of Wagner/Verdi/Puccini, I maintain that Britten the dramatist and “theater composer” falls far short of Britten the composer, in ways that Stravinsky, Berg or even Carlisle Floyd did not.]

The length too is a liability of sorts. Because the music aims so much more for intellectual rather than emotional rewards (despite the lurid subject matter), and because so little actually happens onstage (everything of consequence is “talked about” rather than shown, except for Grimes’ striking of Ellen and the slipping-to-death of the boy – although the staging of that moment is even somewhat perfunctory in this production), this piece feels for all the world like a huge Oratorio. In fact, over and over again during the evening I felt myself thinking that this exact same piece would be far more compelling in a concert version, with the cast facing us, in front of an orchestra, and unfolding this narrative in a totally abstract way, inviting the audience to visualize it within their own minds, within the same framework of personal intellectual abstraction with which Britten had framed it.

But this realization, strong as it was, begs the question which I still cannot resolve: COULD this be a compelling theater work in a different production? That the answer is so elusive is in itself a potential indictment of this production, even if I have no others to compare it to.

Let me first declare emphatically what I felt worked about the production:

-Excellent voices, with Katie van Kooten (as Ellen) and Christopher Purves (as Balstrode) particularly superlative, and certainly an impressive and fully-committed effort from Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes. All secondary roles done with distinction.

-World-class orchestral playing and an excellent chorus, with music director Patrick Summers an exemplar of leadership and conviction from the podium.

-A set, essentially representing the interior of a kind of municipal auditorium vividly remembered from our childhoods, so finely detailed as to “feel” eerily like the real thing. It does its job with impressive functionality, while also seemingly lifelike and inhabited with a kind of film-set authenticity.

-Costuming and lighting are also effective and highly praiseworthy.

So where is the problem? Vexingly, it seems to be in the production’s essential conception. There are three aspects of the production which work against the material itself, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I am convinced that these are the features that rendered it impossible for this PETER GRIMES to achieve a successful connection to the audience as theater:

1. Most egregiously, the many orchestral interludes are played over random stage business, moving of furniture, etc. In the first interlude, this was convincing enough, bringing a temporary sense of “cinematic underscoring” to the transition out of the inquest into the next scene of regular village life afterwards. But the repeated insistence on taking Britten’s interludes, meant as a kind of orchestral meditation on what we’ve just seen, and preventing the audience from experiencing them abstractly by distracting us with meaningless furniture-moving and stage business was not only deadly but profoundly in opposition to the structural integrity of Britten’s intentions. By the time a late interlude rolled around in which children were running around the set, I had to shut my eyes in protest in order to process the interlude on its own terms.

This was the single element of the production to which I felt that Britten, were he present, would have stood up and objected. “Stop this,” he might have said. “You are undermining the aesthetic goal of these interludes.” Drop in a scrim and move your damn furniture behind it – let the audience listen to the interludes in peace as intended!

2. Another ineffective element would have been less offensive but for being tied into the first problem. It was the inclusion of a mute “Dr. Crabbe” wandering through every scene. As a theatrical device it is absolutely defensible, and wouldn’t necessarily have been problematic as pure concept, but in execution there were a few problems, i.e.: when he would approach characters who were otherwise in soliloquy, confusing the issue slightly for the audience as to the nature of the psychological moment for that character.

But perhaps Dr. Crabbe’s most destructive role was as a co-conspirator against the interludes. Directed to meander meaninglessly about the stage, implying some kind of melodramatic significance he in truth never possessed, he ultimately became the chief “culprit” during the interlude-ruining rituals.

And ultimately he never “paid off.” His presence did not end up creating any particular symbolic meaning which transforms our perception of the work, nor did he represent any definitive commentary on the proceedings. Perhaps he would have been more effective used more sparingly, but he was ever-present, gradually becoming a kind of Freudian-looking annoyance, much like when you watch a movie on cable and little animated promos keep popping up in the foreground of your screen.

3. The last problem is a biggie (and again wrapped up with the first one). The enormous metaphor lurking behind every bar of this opera is “the Sea,” and this production assiduously dispenses with it except for a painting on the scrim that we only see between acts. The Act II storm is portrayed very effectively onstage, and that becomes the single time during the entire opera’s staging when the audience is asked to sense the power of nature as being something larger than human endeavor, something frightening, something with the ability to obstruct us from our own choices.

“The Sea as Metaphor” in PETER GRIMES is a pretty big deal at the core of this opera, interpreted alternatively as Death, as Fate, as the inability of man to control his own destiny, and in countless other ways. However you choose to interpret it, it looms large in the soul of this piece.

But by placing us in a very realistic, literal setting and then ignoring the sea in any visible way in the production, the abstract power of the sea’s metaphorical role is diminished fatally. If, during the interludes, the scrim had come down and represented the sea abstractly in different ways, or with projections, or with lighting, its role would have still been referenced, even if not exactly “onstage,” but as commentary in much the way the interludes are.

Or even if we saw NOTHING during the interludes, it would still be better than having us look at this room with people milling about it during music that is designed to be contemplative and non-literal.

Or, again, in a concert/oratorio version of this piece, we’d be expected to imagine everything, as in a radio play, and Britten’s music would certainly ensure we must deal with the enormity of the Sea’s archetypal presence.

But ironically the production, by its very literalness visually (and its refusal to leave the interludes alone as abstract episodes of reflection for the audience between static scenes), renders the score LESS effective as staged than in a concert version. It shows us quite a bit literally but then chooses to give us nothing for the opera’s largest underlying superhuman character. And by stubbornly leaving the scrim up and reducing the interludes to so much visual set-changing music, director Neil Armfield has effectively emasculated Britten’s ability to urge the audience to process the abstract symbolism inherent in the score’s musical agenda. By cutting the sea out of the production, Armfield has shorn the hair from Samson, leaving a powerful and unusual piece of music somewhat shackled and prevented from achieving whatever theatrical potential it may indeed have.

The opera itself, coolly intellectual and enormously abstract and emotionally distant as it already is (despite its enormous musical power), seems to cry out for non-literal treatment and darker opportunities for imagery to be left to the audience’s imagination. This curiously “realistic” yet post-modern staging ultimately trivializes the potentials of this ambitious work rather than reinforcing them.


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