13 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – PETER GRIMES (A. Oke, G. Allen, D. Kempster, G. Keeble; Signum Classics SIGCD348)

Benjamin Britten: PETER GRIMES (Signum Classics SIGCD348)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Peter Grimes, Op. 33—A. Oke (Peter Grimes), G. Allen (Ellen Orford), D. Kempster (Captain Balstrode), G. Keeble (Auntie), A. Hutton (First Niece), C. Bedford (Second Niece), R. Murray (Bob Boles), H. Waddington (Swallow), C. Wyn-Rogers (Mrs. Sedley), C. Gillett (Rev. Horace Adams), C. Rice (Ned Keene), S. Richardson (Hobson); Chorus of Opera North, Chorus of the Guildhall Scholl of Music and Drama; Britten-Pears Orchestra; Steuart Bedford [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh, England, on 7 and 9 June 2013, in conjunction with the 66th Aldeburgh Festival; Signum Classics SIGCD348; 2CD, 137:19; Available from Amazon and major music retailers]

It is a remarkable thing that opera singers are paid—some of them quite handsomely—to pursue an art that, in its essence, is one of being transformed by the power of imagination, something that comes quite naturally to children but eludes many adults.  The distinctions between reality and imagination, truth and perception, intention and actuality, innocence and experience are at the core of Peter Grimes.  In Book XXI of The Borough, George Crabbe wrote of the character who would be metamorphosed by Benjamin Britten and librettist Montagu Slater into Peter Grimes that ‘he meant no harm, nor did he often mean.’  It is this question of intent that lends Peter Grimes its fascinating theatricality and emotional power: are there genuinely unsavory elements of character at work in Grimes’s dealings with his prepubescent apprentices or is he made a scapegoat for legitimate accidents by a society that rejects and fails to understand him?  Part of the attraction of Peter Grimes is that there are no easy answers, and each production of the opera must make its own choices about the extent to which the title character is culpable, whether by malevolence or negligence, for the misfortunes that surround him.  With only the audible clues of interpretation, recordings leave these choices to the listener, and this new recording from Signum Classics—recorded in concert in the venue that is Britten’s Bayreuth—offers intriguing opportunities for experiencing Peter Grimes both within the context of all the best traditions of British opera and with the heightened zeal lent to the performance by celebration of the centennial of its composer’s birth.

A performance of any of Britten’s operas could scarcely be in better hands than those of Steuart Bedford, who conducted the 1973 première of Death in Venice and the subsequent DECCA recording of the opera.  Serving for more than a dozen years as an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Lord Britten, Sir Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier, Maestro Bedford has proved far more significant than a mere ‘disciple’ of Britten: his level-headed approach to the composer’s music, addressing the scores’ musical demands rather than unnecessarily dividing his attention between music and particulars of dramatic interpretations, has revealed that Britten’s operas deserve places of prominence in the modern repertory solely on the grounds of their exceptional music.  The way in which Maestro Bedford conducts Peter Grimes in this recording, drawn from two performances, is enlightening, the firm rhythmic handling of the score shaping a coherent account of the opera in which the Passacaglia and the Sea Interludes—those remarkable inspirations via which even people who do not frequent the opera house are acquainted with Peter Grimes—are organic parts of the opera’s dramatic progression rather than orchestral showpieces that mask scene changes.  Maestro Bedford imposes no interpretive ‘ticks’ on the music, but his affection for the score and its protagonist is always apparent.  Likewise, the complete devotion of the musicians over whom Maestro Bedford presides is audible.  The choristers of both Opera North and the Guildhall School sing with great musicality and nuance that heightens the sense of the chorus forming a community against whose antagonism Grimes has at best a limited capacity for success.  It is not surprising that an ensemble called the Britten-Pears Orchestra should display a natural affinity for Britten’s music, but the performance benefits enormously from the sharply-defined balance and unflinching technical skill of the Orchestra’s playing, which is not on the level of any of the great professional orchestras but is nonetheless very impressive.

There is no greater tribute to Britten’s genius than the skill with which he managed, in the duration of an opera of two hours and twenty minutes, to populate the world of Peter Grimes with portraits of minor characters of which a great novelist would be proud.  The opera begins with the townspeople’s inquest into the death of Grimes’s most recent apprentice, and the singing of this performance’s Hobson and Swallow, basses Stephen Richardson and Henry Waddington, suggests that Britain remains in the second decade of the 21st Century a bastion of fine lower-voiced male singing.  The part of Swallow was originated by the legendary Owen Brannigan, and Mr. Waddington proves an apt successor in the rôle.  The stinging impersonality of his questioning of Grimes conveys precisely the air of contempt that is necessary to building the tension that leads to the opera’s ambiguous conclusion.  Tenors Robert Murray and Christopher Gillett are also effective as Bob Boles and the Reverend Horace Adams.  Mr. Murray is a delightfully sleazy drunkard, and there is an oily suggestiveness in Mr. Gillett’s delivery in the church service that is chilling.  Sopranos Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford exude duplicity as the Nieces, charmingly described as the ‘main attractions’ of their Aunt’s establishment.  The Auntie of mezzo-soprano Gaynor Keeble is obviously weary of both the world and the lying, cheating men who inhabit it and is none too shy in expressing her thoughts.  Mrs. Sedley is the epitome of the ubiquitous busy-body who meddles in the affairs of every community, though admittedly most busy-bodies do not stoop to accusing their neighbors of murder: of course, few scandalmongers sing as vibrantly as Catherine Wyn-Rogers, and the unmitigated glee with which she rouses the mob that pursues Grimes unmistakably drives home Britten’s depiction of the viciousness of society.

It is Ned Keene who selects for Grimes an apprentice among the boys at the workhouse, and he also witnesses the brutality with which Grimes responds to Ellen when she confronts him about his apprentice’s bruise.  Baritone Charles Rice brings a convincing notion of Keene’s conflicting emotions to his performance.  Even a stiff-upper-lipped bloke like Keene cannot have failed to feel some measure of responsibility for the fate of the young apprentice regardless of the depth of his suspicion about Grimes’s involvement, and Mr. Rice conveys this uncertainty compellingly.  Vocally, Mr. Rice sings with ringing masculinity.  Captain Balstrode makes the sad discovery of the apprentice’s jersey, which has washed ashore after Grimes returns from several days at sea: after finding the jersey, Balstrode realizes that, whatever Grimes has or has not done, escaping the Borough’s persecution is no longer possible.  Baritone David Kempster sings Balstrode with concerned resignation, his discomfort at the situation in which he finds himself suppressed but palpable.  Mr. Kempster sings strongly, his suggestion of Grimes’s self-sacrifice powerful but not without sadness, and the occasional rough patches in his singing do not seem inappropriate for a man more used to the sea than to the perhaps even more tempestuous tides of on-shore humanity.

Ellen Orford is one of the most enigmatic heroines in opera.  Like Verdi’s Desdemona, Ellen’s life is altered forever by her compassion for a man who does not conform to their society.  Also like Desdemona, Ellen understands that the social mores of the Borough are as peculiar to Grimes as he seems to his neighbors.  What Britten leaves largely to the listener’s imagination is whether, like Desdemona’s pity for Otello, Ellen’s affection for Grimes blossoms into romantic love.  Grimes entertains thoughts of wedding Ellen, of course, but it is never made clear whether their marriage would be one of convenience and mutually-beneficial companionship or genuine connubial bliss.  Interestingly, one of the most acclaimed portraits by soprano Joan Cross in her pre-World War II seasons at Covent Garden was her Desdemona: having taken the helm of Sadler’s Wells Opera during the War, Cross reopened the Company’s London base of operations in 1945 by creating the rôle of Ellen in the première in Peter Grimes.  Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen shares with Cross an apparent affinity for singing Britten’s music.  In this performance, Ms. Allen proves a committed Ellen.  Her tone is substantial but not always steady as the lines ascend into her upper register, undermining the purity that Ellen must have if she is to be wholly credible.  An effective Ellen need not sound aristocratic in order to convey her nobility of spirit, but Ms. Allen’s Ellen ultimately sounds less like a virginal lady grasping at what may well be her final opportunity for securing a partner for her dotage and more of a somewhat desperate, slightly common woman in pursuit of a man within her reach.  This is not to suggest that Ms. Allen vocalizes poorly: in fact, her account of Ellen’s music is superior to many performances of the rôle, but her singing lacks the histrionic authority of Cross, the simplicity of Claire Watson, the warm femininity of Heather Harper, and the sheer tonal beauty of Dame Felicity Lott.

The title rôle in Peter Grimes was conceived for and created by Britten’s partner, Sir Peter Pears.  The impact of Pears in the part is likely only partially conveyed by the DECCA studio recording of the opera, taped thirteen years after its première, but excerpts from the opera recorded by Cross and Pears shortly after the première disclose a sappier timbre than was heard in the most active years of his international career.  Pears’s voice was an instrument with a singular array of qualities, foremost among which was the pointed leanness of the tone.  It has been unkindly but not unjustifiably suggested that few singers have made more important careers with less vocal capital than Pears managed to do, and it cannot be denied that Britten understood the capabilities of Pears’s voice and wrote music that maximized the impact of his singing.  As an interpreter of his partner’s music, Pears was unchallenged in his lifetime, and he responded to the formidable challenges laid before him in Britten’s operas with singing of fluidity and astonishing emotional depth.  Alan Oke’s singing in this performance often sounds uncannily like Pears’s during the last decade of his career.  This inevitably implies a degree of vocal fragility, and though Mr. Oke’s intonation is generally secure the voice is threadbare and subject to wobbling, especially in moments of greatest stress on high.  Mr. Oke’s singing of ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,’ the opera’s most famous vocal selection, is expressive and broadly-phrased, but the actual singing is small-scaled and lacking in the rapt intensity that Pears brought to the passage, to say nothing of Jon Vickers’s snarling largesse.  Mr. Oke is far more successful at expressing Grimes’s private anguish than at giving voice to his public rages.  Both poetry and tragedy are present in Mr. Oke’s singing, particularly in the final act, but this Grimes’s suffering is of a generalized sort.  Mr. Oke is a competent, even eloquent Grimes but, unfortunately, never an overwhelming one.

Virgil Thomson wrote in New York’s Herald Tribune on the occasion of the 1948 Metropolitan Opera première of Peter Grimes that the opera is ‘varied, interesting, and solidly put together.’  After its first run in the 1948 – 1949 season, Peter Grimes was absent from the MET stage until 1967, when Sir Colin Davis conducted a new production by Tyrone Guthrie that both changed New Yorkers’ reception of the opera from appreciation to outright affection and introduced audiences to the roaring, self-righteous Grimes of Jon Vickers.  In recent seasons, Anthony Dean Griffey has offered an uncommonly alluring Grimes who fuses Pears’s sensitivity with a bit of Vickers’s tonal rotundity.  Alan Oke adheres more obviously to the British tradition of Pears, Langridge, and Rolfe Johnson, but he strives admirably to make the rôle his own.  That his success is only partial is regrettable considering that the supporting cast form such a formidable body of oppressive townsfolk.  In a sense, it is this unbalance that robs the performance of the emotional weight that Peter Grimes can carry: with an Ellen who seems more pragmatic than idealistic and a Grimes who does not stand a chance against his neighbors, the listener’s sympathies are not sufficiently engaged for the tragedy to make its full effect.  There can be a sickening cruelty in the town’s going on without pause or second thought after Grimes’s disappearance, but here it seems merely inexorable.  This is an enjoyably musical performance, brilliantly conducted and often finely sung, but one that deals too much with events and too little with consequences.  Varied, interesting, and solidly put together it is: a Peter Grimes for the ages it is not.