Friday, March 14, 2008

The Opera - Part I - "Peter Grimes"

Finally, John D and NancyP, here is the first episode.

For a long time I have wanted to hear an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I've tried several times to get a ticket, but I have been unsuccessful in matching an opera ticket for a performance that I wanted to hear with the time that I was to be in the city, because my visits are usually short. Then, too, most times Grandpère was with me, and he doesn't like opera.

Since I am 73 years old, going to an opera at the Met was on my list of things I want to do before I die. A brochure arrived from Smithsonian Tours offering four operas in four nights with lectures from an opera expert before each opera, Renée Fleming as Desdemona in "Otello", and a backstage tour of the Met. I jumped in. I have longed to hear Fleming in a live performance after hearing her gorgeous voice only on recordings. I could not resist. It was expensive, but I gave myself a treat.

Our first opera was Britten's "Peter Grimes", which I considered would be my least favorite of the four. However, I found it to be much more compelling than I expected. The tenor, Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang the part of Peter Grimes was excellent and strong both in voice and acting. He's a powerfully built man and totally believable in the part of the ostracized fisherman in the small, claustrophobic English fishing village. The other singers were also quite good, especially Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford, who wants to save Peter, and Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Sedley, the gossipy widow who eggs the others on to turn against Peter.

The opera reminded me of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", with the small community, which includes a good many small-minded folks, inclined to the herd instinct, with the resulting recipe for tragedy. Not that I didn't know the story, but the portentousness from the first moment was palpable in the opera, in a manner which reminded me of the play.

The opera includes the "Four Seas Interludes" orchestral pieces, which divide the acts and serve to set the scene for the next act, and are often performed in concert on their own. The first of the interludes I found especially beautiful.

From the first moments, I was caught up in the story and the music, and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The singing and the acting in "Peter Grimes" were both excellent. I appreciate an opera in which the acting is treated with the same importance as the singing, since opera is, after all, a dramatic presentation.

Apparently, quite a few did not like the set, which consisted of large moving rectangles, covered with material to resemble the rough boards of a fisherman's shack, nearly as high as the very tall opening of the Met stage, with doors at different levels, in which the characters appeared to perform from time to time. The doors swung open and closed spookily on their own and, to me, worked to good effect to help set the mood. Most of those who did not like the set had seen other performances of the opera, with the set consisting of a more realistic representation of a fishing village. All in all, a good evening.

Photo from the New York Times.

Conductor - Donald Runnicles
Hobson - Dean Peterson
Swallow - John Del Carlo
Peter Grimes - Anthony Dean Griffey
Mrs. Sedley - Felicity Palmer
Ellen Orford - Patricia Racette
Auntie - Jill Grove
Bob Boles - Greg Fedderly
Captain Balstrode - Anthont Michaels-Moore
Rev. Horace Adams - Bernard Fitch
Two nieces - Leah Partridge, Erin Morley
Ned Keene - Teddy Tahu Rhodes


  1. Hi Mimi - I have something posted over at my blog that I think you'll get a kick out of...

  2. Fluffie, I've already been there and left a comment.

  3. The "New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" describes Peter Grimes as "a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression". Explicitly gay references (specifically pederastic - Britten was strongly attracted to pre-pubescent boys) were cut from the libretto.

  4. Lapin, I knew that Britten was gay and that the the role of Peter Grimes was written for his long-time partner, Peter Pears. Obviously, there is more than the suggestion of child abuse in the opera, but the sexual overtones went over my head, if they were present - except insofar as one is led to wonder what the hell goes on in Grimes' fisherman's shack.

    Sometimes, I'm glad that I'm pretty much an innocent. Really. That's the truth.

  5. Britten did try to get good libretti written for him, and usually had a good sense of theater.

    G'mimi, I think the business in New Groves about "allegory of homosexual oppression" is anhistorical from the standpoint of the audience. And a good thing, too. Ambiguity makes for better art. One could readily interpret the libretto text as showing the outcome of making outcasts and of the outcasts obsessively seeking respect, or the inhumanity of economic systems at that time. Poorhouse orphans were everywhere regarded as slaves until majority. People just one step up from the workhouse were as prone to exploit them as larger employers.

    This opera was inspired by a fairly obscure 19th century (1804?)long poem, "The Borough", by George Crabbe, which was one of the few that addressed lives of ordinary British people, specifically, those living in a small fishing village not too different from the one Britten grew up in some 100 years later. Pears is the one that ferreted it out as a possible subject.

    Here is the poem, for free:

    Billy Budd is also a gripping opera when well sung.

    I am having this fairly recent interest in modernism in music, and in English vocal music.


  6. Nancy, we had a wonderful lecturer who really knew his opera. The morning before each performance, he talked for about an hour and an half and played excerpts from the opera. He had the names of all the singers on the tips of his fingers. He had told us of Crabbe's poem and that the character of Grimes is actually more sympathetic and ambivalent in the opera, than in the poem, in which he's a cruel scoundrel.

    Thanks for the link to the poem.

    I would probably like "Billy Budd", too. Now that I've heard "Peter Grimes", I'm more than willing to give attention to Britten's other operas.

  7. Lucky you Mimi - we enjoy listening to the live Met broadcasts on Radio 3 on Saturdays as we drive home from Mass at Westminster Cathedral and we have sung with Renee and Levine in concert in the Royal Festival Hall so we've been lucky too!

  8. John, my next opera post will be on "Otello" with Fleming as Desdemona. It was a magical four nights. Exhausting, but magical.

  9. Heard the last act on the radio live broadcast last night - twice lots transmsission but excelletn singing and conducting from Maestro Runnicles. My blog is now a private one so send me you email to if you owuld like to be invited!

  10. Mimi,

    Peter Grimes is an opera I love. The old production at the Met was wonderful, more realistic than the current one, but what really makes the opera is singing and acting.
    As for gay overtones, NancyP is surely correct -- there is not a hint in the text that Peter is sexually attracted to the boys. He probably patronizes the "nieces" and he certainly fantasizes about marrying Ellen Orford.

    You would love Billy Budd, too.

  11. Allen, the huge rectangles sliding around had the effect of reinforcing the claustrophobic atmosphere in the village. And the eerie doors, opening and closing on their own, worked quite well to convey the sense of spookiness and impending doom.

  12. Mimi, my local PBS station broadcast PG yesterday afternoon. I quite agree with your opinion of the production. This morning I read over Crabbe's original story of Grimes,and the depth of changes that went into the opera libretto are astonishing. The only part they actually kept from Crabbe's version of Grimes is what is now the opening scene of the opera.

    I was particularly affected by Peter's last scene. Did you notice that for most of it the orchestra drops out almost entirely, and he's singing almost unaccompanied?

    I couldn't help feeling that Mrs. Sedley, with her insistence on nosing out crime, was in some way meant by Britten to be a satire on Mrs. Marple.

    And do get the War Requiem. If you can, get the recording conducted by Britten in the wake of the world premiere--the soloists were Pears, FischerDieskau, and Galina can't spell her last name was the wife of Rostropovich.

  13. Kishnevi, I'm just now finding this comment. Mrs. Sedley came across to me as much more sinister than Miss Marple, but, yes, maybe Miss Marple pushed to extremes.

    The orchestra was remarkable in the production.

    I will look into the War Requiem.


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