Saturday, February 8, 2014

A modernist look for Peter Grimes

Operas are servants of two masters: the plot and the music. That is, the plot often belongs to one period and the music comes from another. Where the two can cross purposes is in the visual design: if the plot is Renaissance, say (think Gianni Schicchi, Don Carlo, or Rigoletto) but the music is opera-house Italian, someone has to make a choice about what kind of costumes or set we are going to see -- doublets or frock-coats? or maybe T-shirts?

Renaissance costume: Don Carlo, Met 2010
19th-century costumes: Glyndebourne, 2004

T-shirts, etc: Bavarian State Opera, 2012
It gets particularly problematic when an opera depends on an essentially realistic source story. So with Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, based on a gritty, naturalist story (albeit written by a poet, George Crabbe, in the Romantic period, whom Byron called "nature's sternest painter"): a gloomy man eking out a subsistence living as a fisherman on the Suffolk coast, whose depression lashes out in violence on his apprentice boys, abusing and eventually killing them in fits of anger. He's driven to these fits in part by his own depressive personality, and in part by the prying, gossiping, judgmental provincial town he lives in (Britten and Crabbe's home town of Aldeburgh).

San Franciso Opera 1976
This is material that in many ways depends on its location in time and place. The obvious choice, then, is to set the opera in early 19th-century coastal England.
But there's Britten's amazingly modernist music to take into account. It's edgy, abrupt, bitterly ironic. Having Britten in the pit seems to demand something other than realism: not Zola but Auden (or even Ted Hughes?) would be the literary equivalent. 

The current Grimes at the English National Opera takes Britten's modernism as the cue for an amazing set, as angular and occasionally nasty as the score. Walls that tilt sharply; tables that are thrust up at horrible angles, on which the singers have to balance; sharp, eerie shadows cast by characters, as if their souls were lurking on the back wall of the set; a bilious and claustrophic lighting, out of Hopper's Night Cafe.

The only video I can find of the production is the ENO trailer, clearly a promotional collage. But its snippets capture some of the asymmetrical, jagged energy of this remarkable modernist production:

The great success of this tragic opera is that it takes this nasty tale about a terrible man and makes it beautiful; even Peter Grimes himself, like Macbeth, shows a soul of beauty. Here, to end with, is Stuart Skelton, who sings Grimes at the ENO (though he was sick the night I heard it, and his understudy did a great job), singing the amazing first-act aria, "The Great Bear."

The text:
Now the great Bear and Pleiades
where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds
of human grief
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher
In storm or starlight
The written character
of a friendly fate –
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope's
Like a flashing turmoil
of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again? 


taplatt said...

Sounds fantastic. Oh, to have the financial resources to go see the ENO...

Chen Liang said...

the aira sounds fabulous!It's interesting that you say operas serve their plots and music. I always saw this the other way around before.