Saturday, March 15, 2008

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes at the multiplex

Well, I wanted the experience of the Live from the Met hookup which brings Grand Opera to a cine near you in HD. I’d heard such great things about the experience. So when Bryant suggested we attend the showing of Peter Grimes today, I gladly went along.

But, although it was definitely worth going, I don’t think I’ll be doing it very often in the future. Really, there’s just too much annoyance added in (city driving and parking) and too much energy sucked out, to make it a vital need for me.

Opera live is best really live, and not second-hand through a distancing medium like a movie theater representation. Yes, some of the frisson of the immediate with its potential for the unexpected is there at first, but the absolute control of the technical elements soon takes off that edge. The only spontaneous things that I saw were in the clumsy but endearing interview segments with an uncomfortable Natalie Dessay doing her darndest not to sound scripted.

Best unexpected interchange: Natalie trying to prompt tenor Dean Griffey for his own personal take on the guilt or innocence of Peter Grimes (he wouldn’t be pushed). I’ve always wondered how these artists can take this kind of intrusion into the flow of their performances.

Griffey in particular seemed to be so identifying with Grimes, that I wondered if he wasn’t tempted to smack Ms Dessay around a little. Patricia Racette was herself quite the Ellen Orford, with her very idealistic interpretations and her almost pedantic descriptions of the technical aspects of the music. Both of them give great performances, by the way – quite stellar.

Maybe it was just this production, but I really didn’t see Grimes as just an “outsider” being unfairly tarred and feathered by the moral righteousness of his community. I actually was agreeing that Ellen was quite wrongheaded to set Grimes up with another young boy to abuse, honorable as her reasons were. I was thinking that she was sending this scared kid to his doom. And so it was.

I wonder what it is about this opera that makes it one of the most celebrated of the last 50 years. Certainly the music is quite wonderful; Britten is such a genius of orchestral color and emotiveness. But the libretto is so bookish, so prosaic. There are great vocal parts for many of the characters, and there are such rich characters for good performers to get their teeth into, but the whole thing is rather like a musical version of a Victorian novel. Sweeney Todd comes to mind – there’s even a bit of twisted humor now and then.

And then there is the inventive use of the chorus, who are collectively one of the most important characters in the drama. And the moral ambiguity of the story is quite absorbing, no easy answers here.

But it’s all so unremittingly down, so clearly spiraling to a painful end, that I left before the last act, which I knew was just going to be more and worse tragedy, however gorgeous. The “issues” were of the time and in the psyche of the original artists. Britten, obsessed with young boys, reveals perhaps his struggle with the monstrous side of his fascination, and paints a deeply disturbing picture of an almost erotic intensity.

Liberals of the time (and surely Britten and Pears were socially liberal) had much to say about the power of the ignorant majority, the “other- directed” as opposed to the more heroic “inner-directed”, as Riesman’s Lonely Crowd called them. (Ellen vs. The Borough). It’s a gripping morality play we are watching here, and although it’s got lots of great musical moments, and displays great inner conflicts, I can’t help feeling that moral ideas are not best served by the medium of Opera.

Maybe I was scared to be sucked into the whirlpool of the inevitable denouement – I’ve heard the recordings and I listened to it on my car radio as I retreated, and it’s implacably intense, even masterfully so. But I had had enough reminders of my own inner conflicts, and my love-hate with the Fifties, which haunted my childhood. I wanted out, and Bryant wanted to go as well, for his own reasons – he said he was bored with some of it (great admission, Bryant!) .

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