"Peter Grimes . . . is, for me, the essence of what an opera can be, and, in some senses, the high-water mark against which I have evaluated every other piece of contemporary opera." — Nico Muhly
Somehow, in between performances of Two Boys at the Met, David Robertson managed to prepare his own St. Louis Symphony and Chorus to perform Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes. They did it first in St. Louis last Saturday, and then again last night in Carnegie Hall, on the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth. Even if last night's performance had been merely adequate, the mere gesture of presenting this three-hour-plus masterpiece, which Britten wrote when he was only 31, on the Britten centenary would have been praiseworthy.
But, what Robertson and his players brought to Carnegie last night was nothing short of extraordinary. Robertson took the score at lightning pace, driving the orchestra hard during the storm passages but drawing out the lush, evocative interludes so you could almost taste the sea air. The chorus, which plays such a central role in this opera, sang with searing intensity. There were also clever bits of stagecraft, such as placing the chorus and an electronic organ at the back of the hall during the church scene in the beginning of Act II, or having Grimes amble down the "cliff path" by way of the stage right stairs at the end of Act II.
But this opera about a fisherman falsely accused of killing his young apprentices hinges around the title character, and St. Louis had on hand the greatest Grimes on the planet, Anthony Dean Griffey, whose 2008 performances at the Met are still seared into the collective memory of all those who saw it. This was my first opportunity to witness Griffey live, and his portrayal was raw, emotional, on the brink of insanity—which is precisely what Britten intended. With all due respect to Britten's original Grimes (and muse), Peter Pears, Griffey illuminates the reckless abandon of the role in a way Pears never quite managed to achieve.
The rest of the cast was no less outstanding, particularly soprano Susanna Phillips as Ellen Orford, the object of Grimes' unrequited love, and baritone Alan Held as Balstrode, the retired skipper who counsels Grimes and eventually convinces him to accept his unfortunate fate. There was no stage lighting or sets—a rigging attached to the proscenium went unused—but in other ways this felt like a staged production: all of the cast members sang without scores, with Griffey, Phillips, and Held all singing in semi-costume.
After the ominous final chords faded away, the ovations went on for over 10 minutes, and could have easily gone on for much longer. The singers all seemed overwhelmed by the combination of the reaction and the moment; Robertson, for his part, seemed less ebullient than proud papa who accomplished exactly what he set out to achieve.
For all of the wondrous music that passes through this town on a regular basis, there are precious few performances that rise to the level of sheer genius. This performance of Grimes was one of them. Britten—who once lived a mere half-hour subway ride away from Carnegie—would have loved to have seen it himself.
More pics on the photo page.