Sunday, March 16, 2008
Culpability - It Takes a Village (Spitzer and the new Peter Grimes at the Met)
In this week of scandal mongering over Eliot Spitzer's frailties, it seems to me the entire press corps and the finger-wagging public could use a dose of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which I saw in a very effective new production at the Met yesterday. I've linked you to the Met's website which offers lots of background on the opera and production - video interviews, music clips and the like if you are interested. Britten was always a champion of the social outcast, whether from a comic angel with Albert Herring or a majestic one with Grimes. I wish Britten's work were programmed more often in New York's opera houses. His music is contemporary but accessible. You can tell it's of recent past (as opposed to, say, hearing strains of a Viennese waltz wafting through it) it pulls on the sonorities of hymn, folk tune, and the sounds of nature in such a way that you can nod with familiarity. It is definitely modern but its harmonies are not so cacophonous that you must merely endure them and each opera offers some memorable melodic themes if not exactly humable songs. They are written in English that is usually made understandable to the ear by the way the words are set in the music. The stories he chooses can be surprising and many have a message - often one about the responsibility assumed when judging others. Britten also does fine adaptations of great literary works - Melville's Billy Budd, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Finally, all his operas are real music dramas that are complex not because you can't follow the stories, but rather because they cannot really be pulled off without complex human beings in the central parts rather than the usual opera stick figures.
This production directed by John Doyle who just did the recent Sweeny Todd revival on Broadway, creates a looming landscape of blacks and greys that is visually really effective. A front "curtain" the entire width and height of the Met stage - and that is big - is a facade of wooden houses that is reminiscent of a Louise Nevelson sculpture. It is intentionally monolithic and non-realistic and yet you clearly know what it is. Doors and windows pop open and the town's people stand in them. Doyle makes good use of the narrative nature of the libretto by having this facade force both principles and the town's people well down stage (near the audience) addressing their narration full-front to the audience. He suggests the atmosphere of a fishing village rather than trying to recreate it in excruciating detail. As I mentioned, I found the opera's themes of individual and collective culpability as timely as ever. I don't think Doyle and Anthony Dean Griffey (Grimes) entirely solve the dramatic problem of who Peter Grimes is and from whence springs his violence, particularly in the first two acts. Griffey's performance in the third act has some moments of vulnerability in it that I wish he could dramatically "trace back" to the earlier part of the opera rather than relying on a histrionic sort of disorientedness. Even if Grimes doesn't know where his behavior comes from, it would help if we saw the seeds of his Act III behavior in Acts I and II. Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford had a nice moment or two. She is a very open performer which I always appreciate amidst the overwrought antics usually seen at the Met. Her music lies low for a soprano, and Racette has a rich voice, however I thought all that full singing low in her range compromised the beauty of her singing later in the opera. There were so many overtones in her sound by Act III that I could no longer hear the actual center of the pitch. There is also some "stage business," as people like to call it, that reeks of convention, with no roots in the drama of the moment. Auntie, her nieces, and other principle characters suddenly leap onto boxes to deliver solo lines in crowded scenes. While this may temporarily solve a problem of drawing attention to them on a crowded stage, the director and artists have made no sense of what they are doing from the point of view of their character's behavior in the story. This type of lazy stage craft removes me temporarily from the experience of the story. Ultimately it was usually the music in this production that drew me in. The tremendous sweeping tide of this score was captured in all its grandeur by conductor Donald Runnicles and the fantastic Met orchestra.
P. S. I hope the Met can find a way to silence the squeaking of the heavy set as it moves on its track after the quietly emotional exit of Grimes at the end of Act III. It is rare that an audience can be drawn in to respond with pure silence that hangs in the air for a moment. That build up and the entrance of the opera's narrative epilogue are squandered as we listen to the horrible tearing and squeaking sounds of the set.