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Britten on the wind

Ambiguity. That’s the theme of the operas of Benjamin Britten (ennobled as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh). Another theme is the corruption of innocence, always present, from Paul Bunyan (those innocent trees, who dream of becoming furniture) to Death in Venice (Aschenbach, who dreams that death will cure him of writer’s block).  

But first, ambiguity, an excellent subject for a century when dogmatic certainties brought little but trouble. There is an ambiguity in Britten’s melodies that arch and end up elsewhere than you think they will set down. There is ambiguity in the words in poems that Britten sets to music slightly akimbo from the poet’s seeming intent. In such cases, however, his lordship is a collaborating poet, and is “reading” the verse aloud to us to bring out meanings apparent to his artistic sensibility. I used to resent his “spin” on traditional poetry, but I’ve learned to let Britten take his own way, and to try to understand what he has to teach me.

When Peter Grimes premiered in 1945, Britten was little known outside the circle of British musicians (and a poet or two) of his generation. He and Peter Pears, the first Grimes and already Britten’s partner in music, life and crime—homosexuality was a criminal offense, y’know—had been avowed pacifists during the war just ending. They went to the United States when it broke out, but returned in 1942 to share the sufferings of the besieged. Britten was already working on an opera set in a fishing village on the Anglian coast, an opera about injustice imposed by whispers and rumors, by mob rule and by government indifference.

The internal questioning that was basic to Britten’s own makeup is not a feature of the folk of The Borough. We meet many individuals there as they cope in their different ways with the hypocrisies of their society. They all “adjust” their wishes to meet the standards required by the social fabric—except for Peter, who, right or wrong, refuses to compromise with even the most benign of his fellows, even with the woman he thinks he loves. He will have it his way or not at all. He is destroyed by his own temper, by his pride and warped internal struggle as much as by the hostility of others. This is an ambiguous moral story, a story for our time. The love tale is not central—love stories never are in Britten’s operas. His protagonists are individuals, true to—or betrayed by—themselves.

In Carnegie Hall, where Peter Grimes was thrillingly performed by the St. Louis Symphony under David Robertson for the composer’s hundredth birthday last Friday, the occasion had one special advantage over hearing this mighty work in an opera house: Unmuffled by a pit, the orchestra could exploit Britten’s idiosyncratic combinations of sound upon sound, of light and weather, of strings in uneasy harmonies with dabbles of bright percussion to create the dappling of sunlight on Sunday morning or the frustrated surge of furious waves during the storm. Even those who had heard the opera twenty times found (or were reminded of) new wonders, new individualities of orchestration, to savor. Amy Kaiser’s superb St. Louis Symphony Chorus and a matchless group of character-acting signers quite made up for the absence of scenery.

Anthony Dean Griffey currently holds title to the title role. He is surly and clumsy in looks, no romantic figure in a fisherman’s sweater, but he sings with an arching lyricism that seems to emerge from another place than his loutish temperament. He can remind us that all men (in pious Britten’s view) mix the divine and the base. One missed, perhaps, the menace of Jon Vickers (who always seemed to be steaming, about to erupt), the ghostly innerness of Philip Langridge, but Griffey’s was a fine, well-crafted performance. It was especially thoughtful of the producers to turn off the “surtitles” for Peter’s mad scene. We did not need them for solos; every word was pronounced. In other scenes, of course, titles explained more crowded verbal passages, as when the hymn from the church (sung from the rear of the parquet) comments ironically on Ellen Orford and her self-deluding hopes.

Ellen was Susanna Phillips, whom I last heard as a lovely Iphis in Handel’s Jephtha, but who has been singing Musettas and Mozart at the Met for some whiles. Her cool, lucent soprano was ideal here, vocal expression of the refuge Grimes hopes for, heroic in “Let her among you without sin” (my date, unfamiliar with the piece, had chills at this point—as one should), crushed but still womanly, full of deep character, in “Embroidery.”

A small playing area was available on the left side of the orchestra, which permitted the opera’s naturalistic confrontations rather better than does the Met’s atrocious John Doyle production. Alan Held sang a brusque, dark, unsubtle Balstrode. Thomas Cooley, as the “Methody” minister, leaped on a sort of podium to preach. Patrick Carfizzi in owlish glasses played Lawyer Swallow with point to his stern legal rants and his preening jokes (which no one but Swallow himself can appreciate, surely) when attempting, lucklessly, to flirt with Auntie’s lyrical Nieces, Leela Subramaniam and Summer Hassan. David Pittsinger made a forthright Carter Hobson.

Meredith Arwady in a twirling shawl was rather too much of a har-har Tugboat Annie as Auntie, the saloonkeeper, but Nancy Maultsby, clutching an umbrella (so we wouldn’t forget whom she was playing?), had the balance down for opiated, vicious Mrs. Sedley. Keith Boyer, Dr. Adams, did not make the heart take flight with his little nocturne. Garrett Boyer ably played Grimes’s wordless apprentice who, ironically (but that’s Britten!) is accused by Grimes of “telling tales” to make trouble. The chorus is far larger than any opera house production would provide, yet every word was crisp, every moaning or yodeling effect filling the hall.

This concert of Britten’s best-known opera was the fitting climax of the birthday celebrations, a relief and a delight for those of us who are rather worn out with the Wagner and Verdi bicentennials.

The previous night, the New York Philharmonic under its director, Alan Gilbert, gave the first of three performances of an all-Britten program: the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Spring Symphony of 1948-49. On the Thursday, the program was jeopardized by the illness of Paul Appleby, star of the Met’s recent Two Boys, who was to have taken the divo roles in both pieces. Michael Slattery (looking nervous but sounding splendid) joined hornist Philip Myers for the Serenade, making particularly winning things of “Goddess Excellently Bright” and “O Rose, Thou Art Sick,” if not quite scaring the bejesus out of us with “This ae night,” as Robert Tear used to do.

The Symphony presented a new tenor, Dominic Armstrong, who had learned the music only that morning (but one would never have guessed had Maestro Gilbert not told us so beforehand), to join the charming Kate Royal and the adorable Sasha Cooke (whose alto seems to grow more sumptuous, more moving with every appearance). The work was a new one to me, too. One doesn’t associate Britten with springtime—he seems so autumnal, astringent, leaves-bare-from-the-trees-to-reveal-curious-juxtapositions-of-structure composer.

But even in the gray southeasterly surge of Suffolk, one presumes, springtime arrives and Lord Britten was there to ponder it and set a number of poems, from medieval to modern, to do so. Alan Gilbert thrives on this sort of repertory rather better than he does on romantic classics, or perhaps he has figured out ways to make percussion-heavy twentieth-century music operate properly with the Fisher Hall acoustic. But the strings of the Serenade also sounded desirably, unwontedly, plush.

On the weekend of November 15-16, the Park Avenue United Methodist Church on East 86th Street, in concert with the Filomen D’Agostino Greenberg Music School, a division of the Lighthouse School for the Blind, presented Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. This “opera,” a setting of a medieval passion play from Chester, has a revived currency thanks to global warming and to the score’s surprising and effective use last year in the film Moonrise Kingdom. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because so many of the participants (many of them children from the school) had parents there, the church was packed to wiggle room on the Friday night performance (and probably the other two as well).

Britten, whose sense of music-theater drew him to explore such forms as chamber opera, Noh play and children’s opera, did not intend this work for the theater, and it might not even work in one. He wrote it for performance in churches and by amateurs, including the children of the congregation playing Noah’s sons, their wives and many, many animals. He intended it to be the sort of theater where one feels a link not merely to the music or the text but also to the participants, and he rather hoped everyone present would join in on the hymns. Therefore it was difficult for an outsider, unconnected with them and not a Christian, to respond to a less than professional performance.

Several of the singers were blind, and moving them about the altar/stage with its many high steps and levels was a chore achieved gracefully and imaginatively. Several of the children had lovely voices, and Laurie Rubin, a blind contralto, sang Noye’s shrewish wife with wonderful plummy tones. The only singer who really filled the church with personality and whose words were always clear, however, was Noye, Peter Stewart, a frequent performer of new works by many living composers.

122 comments

  • Has Oralia Dominguez passing been told to us? My friend Rontano just read this.

  • operaassport says:

    No one should miss the BBC documentary Britten’s Endgame -- a 2 hr look at the last few years of his life that includes rare footage including his funeral. I thought it was wonderful.

  • Flora del Rio Grande says:

    “No one knew. . . etc.” Just not so. Everyone knew at one level or another what was going on in Germany and what Great Britain was facing.
    I am a very great admirer of Ben Britten’s music; for me he is right up there with
    the best of the first half of the 20th C. Yes, ranking with Debussy and pre-1910
    Schoenberg, Berg, Webern et al. BUT -- his escape to America on the eve of WWII
    has always looked like a cop out to many observers. This I know from reading
    some recent scholarship: Britten and PP returned to UK through dangerous waters
    only after they were advised that their continued absence from the war effort was
    eliciting disapproval and a lot of negative regard for them in UK. They made the
    right decision to return and they did aid the war effort. Then, of course, there
    was Sir Thomas Beecham, who was conducting the Metropolitan Opera and other
    orchestras in America during the height of the war. I just don’t know. . .
    Maybe he needed the money; he did run short at times I’ve been told.
    Anyway, God bless the memory and the music of Ben Britten! The more you
    know of it the better that vast body of music becomes!

  • Donna Anna says:

    Last week, Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music gave powerful performances of Owen Wingrave. We heard both casts, all of whom delivered memorable performances. Commissioned as a television opera by the BBC in 1968, Britten used it as another expression of his pacifism. The Henry James ghost story he used as source material (set by Myfanwy Piper)is far weaker than The Turn of the Screw but it does have the Britten requisites: pacifism and a subtext of the corruption of innocence.
    This being an opera of ideas, most characters are two-dimensional, including Owen himself. The exception is Coyle, the tutor preparing young men for an unnamed military college. Owen’s fiance, Kate, is such a shrill harridan that one wonders what on earth he sees in her. Kate’s mother and Aunt Wingrave are in the same mold. But the score, by turns jagged and lyrical, is fascinating. After being disinherited and cut off from his family, Owen sings a “peace aria” that effectively shimmers with the orchestral accompaniment standing in for a gamelan ensemble.
    The staging (directed by Ken Shaw) was aided by sets and lighting designed by CCM students; it was a smooth transition from television to stage.
    The usual pit orchestra is the CCM Philharmonia, but since they were involved with their own Britten concert that weekend, the CCM Concert Orchestra performed and they were excellent. This is a difficult score with a range of textures and guest conductor Johannes Muller-Stosch produced an assured and powerful reading.
    There was a production up on youtube with a long in the tooth Ben Luxon as Owen but if it’s still there, it’s worth seeing. Youtube also has clips of the film made with Gerald Finley.

  • Hans Lick says:

    Saw the original production of Owen on PBS and disliked it heartily then. Recently listened again … still does not appeal to me. Not merely are the characters unpersuasive and unattractive (true also of the justly obscure James story), the musical language does not state their case, get under their skins, the way it does in Grimes or Billy Budd or Death in Venice.

    But I’m glad it does not sit unregarded in a trunk.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      OW a bit of an obvious attempt to repeat the success of his other Henry James opera, TheTurn of the Screw, and it falls flat by comparison. It has becaome a rarity, but a recent student production in London reminded me why it’s not a repertoire piece. I was happy to have seen it again. I attended the stage premiere at Covent Garden with Luxon, Pears, Harper, Fisher, Shirley-Quirk, Baker, etc. Sadly, Jennifer Vyvian was mortally ill by then and had to pull out.

    • Henry Holland says:

      Yes, it’s not top drawer Britten, but he hadn’t written an opera in 15 years, to me there’s a disconnect between his earlier style and the more astringent, percussion-heavy style he adopted after his mid-50′s trip to Indonesia.

      Owen’s fiance, Kate, is such a shrill harridan that one wonders what on earth he sees in her

      Maybe it’s because I just finished watching series 4 of Downton Abbey but I feel sorry for Kate. As Mary in DA has made clear, women of her class have very few options, things like “love” and “being able to stand being in the same room for 5 minutes with your betrothed” are not factors, family and financial arrangements are paramount. I see Kate as a woman who has had her life plotted out for her since she was a young girl and she sees that about to disappear because her fiance doesn’t want that life any more.

      It’s the one Britten opera I haven’t seen a performance of, I’m not holding out any hope that Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego are going to do it. Maybe plucky Long Beach will?

      • Donna Anna says:

        Henry,
        You’re correct about the type of woman Kate represents; her mother verbalizes those limitations.
        It’s not Britten’s best by any means; I was underwhelmed by the BBC’s production but hearing/seeing it live made the difference (as it often does).

  • Hans Lick says:

    Britten might have felt called upon to write Wyngrave to emphasize the pacifism because of the Vietnam War going on at the time. It is a part of his makeup, especially in Billy Budd, that he if often ignored by commentators today.

  • stignanispawn says:

    It puzzles me why Anthony Dean Griffey doesn’t appear more regularly at the Met. My observation is that he manages his career by singing a few roles extrodinarily well — becoming indespensible for productions, sort of like Dottie Kirsten at the end of hers.
    He is a excellent singer but I can only sit through a limited number of Peter Grimes performances a decade, and Mahagonny doesn’t get done often enough. I wish he was part of the Met’s new Fledermaus — which I understand he sang with much aplomb in Houston recently.

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    Currently enjoying this performance of Frau,

    It’s a nice cast, but it also reminded me how lucky we were to have Schwanewilms, Goerke and Komlosi, in that at least, there are very contrasting voices among these three.