Music Review: Meeting Village Ostracism With Repressed Rage

11.24.13
David Robertson
The New York Times

The St. Louis Symphony’s ‘Peter Grimes,’ at Carnegie Hall

By Anthony Tommasini

In the penultimate scene of Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes,” vengeance grips the townspeople of the Borough, a fishing village on the east coast of England. The strange, volatile Grimes, a fisherman and loner who disdains the gossipy talk of “interferers,” as he calls practically everyone, has disappeared, and there is no trace of the boy who had been working, miserably, as Grimes’s apprentice. The residents suspect that for the second time Grimes is responsible for the death of an apprentice. This is not just mob psychology. There are telltale clues: the boy’s jersey has washed ashore, and Grimes has a history of abuse.

In a chorus that builds with dizzying intensity, the villagers cry out for Grimes to be caught and punished. “Him who despises us we’ll destroy!” they sing.

I have never heard this chilling scene performed with such vehemence as it was at Carnegie Hall on Friday night, the exact anniversary of the centennial of Britten’s birth. David Robertson, conducting the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus and an ideal cast of singers headed by the superb tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, led an extraordinary concert performance of “Peter Grimes.”

The impressive chorus (Amy Kaiser, director) and the orchestra, which is sounding great these days under the dynamic Mr. Robertson, its music director, conveyed not just the seething emotions in this climax but also the hint of maniacal glee that runs through the music. Reinforced by slashing chords in the orchestra, the choristers finally called out the culprit by name, singing “Peter Grimes” in a series of ferocious outbursts separated by near-silences, gauged for terrifying dramatic effect by Mr. Robertson.

This was just one unforgettable episode in an incisive and wrenching performance of this landmark Britten opera, completed in 1945 when he was 31. Mr. Griffey is acclaimed for his Grimes; he starred in the director John Doyle’s new production of the work in 2008 for the Metropolitan Opera. Though musically strong, that was a flawed production dominated by an imposing tiered, wall-like set.

This concert performance, a highlight of Carnegie Hall’s Britten festival, was as involving as any production you could imagine. There was just enough blocking to convey the action; and the singers dressed in ways that suggested their characters. Mr. Griffey wore a rumpled fisherman’s wool sweater. The soprano Susanna Phillips, in a radiant performance as Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher so sympathetic to Grimes, looked demure in a proper black dress. The appealing baritone Liam Bonner, in a sports coat and bow tie, was a sly Ned Keene, the town charmer, an apothecary and a quack.

Mr. Griffey’s Grimes is baffled by his ostracism. His defensive reaction is to make things worse by acting aloof. In powerful bursts of singing, he conveyed the character’s raging demons. But when Grimes — oblivious to the suspicious stares of the crowd while at an inn — becomes strangely reflective in the dreamy aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” Mr. Griffey sang with such reverie that his hulking Grimes briefly seemed the only person in town who comprehends the nature of human grief and solitude. In the final act’s 20th-century mad scene, Mr. Griffey, looking and sounding distraught and dangerous, again proved himself one of the most courageous actors in opera today.

Among other standouts were the bass-baritone Alan Held as the decent Balstrode, a retired skipper; the rich-voiced contralto Meredith Arwady as Auntie, the landlady of the inn; the compelling bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Hobson, a carter. The fine mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was all nervous energy as Mrs. Sedley, a widow is addicted to an opiate supplied by Keene. “Peter Grimes” exposes the forces that compel residents of towns everywhere to single out someone to fear and ostracize. You could imagine a situation in which the pathetic Mrs. Sedley winds up the town outcast. In Britten’s great tragic opera, that function falls to Peter Grimes.