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S & H International Opera Review

Britten: Peter Grimes, soloists, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 18th January 2004 (BH)



Glenn Winslade, Tenor: Peter Grimes

Janice Watson, Soprano: Ellen Orford

Anthony Michaels-Moore, Baritone: Balstrode

Jill Grove, Mezzo-soprano: Auntie

Sally Matthews, Soprano: First Niece

Alison Buchanan, Soprano: Second Niece

Christopher Gillett, Tenor: Bob Boles

James Rutherford, Bass: Swallow

Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Mezzo-soprano: Mrs. Sedley

Ryland Davies, Tenor: Rev. Horace Adams

Richard Byrne, Baritone: Ned Keene

Jonathan Lemalu, Bass-baritone: Hobson



You know you are in for a memorable performance of an opera when two of the smallest roles (in this case the two "nieces" – arguably more like "nieces of the evening") are given to artists who make an indelible impact comparable to anyone else in the cast. In this case Sally Matthews and Alison Buchanan had everything from ethereal plateaus to shrill bickering, and the latter had the audience tittering in lines like Save us from lonely men; they’re like a broody hen with habits but with no ideas – hilarious and dark at the same time.

It was some afternoon. In an extraordinary beginning to their three-concert stand here, Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus summoned up the windswept cliffs of Aldeburgh in a Peter Grimes to treasure for a long, long time. Sir Colin is justifiably revered for his affinity with this piece, and when his love and knowledge are partnered with a fleet orchestra, a memorable cast and a chorus that wowed everyone in the room, the result made the woman next to me profess, "This is the kind of afternoon that makes you glad you’re alive." (As a lovely coda to this whole affair, the program notes indicate that this Grimes will be released on the orchestra’s LSO Live! label later this year.)

Glenn Winslade made a haunting Grimes despite some apparent vocal problems, such as some of the more taxing passages in his big scene at the end of Act II. But sometimes his strain actually seemed to amplify his desperation, such as in his earnest, high-flying projection of Now the Great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves are drawing up the clouds of human grief. What profound writing this is, and Winslade seemed lost in thought, a mass of introspection anticipating the tide that would overtake him.

Britten begins Act II with an elegant passage with the cellos, flutes and a gentle chime to accompany Ellen Orford, and Janice Watson (with an offstage chorus as counterpoint) sang with unaffected simplicity, coupled with some beautiful high notes. Jill Grove’s commanding presence, both physically and vocally as Auntie only made one count one’s blessings again, for this starry cast. The fine quartet that ends the first scene has amazing Sondheim-worthy lines such as They are children when they weep, We are mothers when we strive, Schooling our own hearts to keep the bitter treasure of their love. (Musically, too, there seems to be a good bit of Britten in Sondheim’s work, with all of his references to Ravel and Richard Strauss.) As the act evaporates, it leaves a haunting viola solo in its wake, here delivered with complete authority and passion by Paul Silverthorne.

As Balstrode, Anthony Michael-Moore gave arguably the finest performance of the afternoon, only gaining in power as the drama progressed, and his impressive range included a hilariously mocking falsetto in his Act I ensemble with those nieces. As his emotional accomplice, Mrs. Sedley, Catherine Wyn-Rogers not only sang beautifully, but her dark red hair seemed to suit the part.

Act III’s famous Embroidery Scene was yet another highlight in an afternoon that seemed overflowing with music designed to make us gasp. When Watson softly landed on her poignant final line, Now my [em] broidery affords the clue whose meaning we avoid, it became one of the opera’s most piercing moments.

James Rutherford and Jonathan Lemalu made Swallow and Hobson, respectively, uncomfortably inquisitive, and Christopher Gillett as Boles did a superb job, having a bit of fun with this drunken little pipsqueak. Even Ryland Davies, in a relatively brief appearance as the Rector, made a strong impression. And as Ned Keene, Richard Byrne substituted for Nathan Gunn (called away at the last minute by a family emergency), and did a fine job under no doubt difficult circumstances.

And now we come to the gleaming, agile London Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its one-hundredth year. The dazzling orchestral Interludes – all six of them – could not have come across with more verve. If one had been sitting in the sold-out Avery Fisher Hall in total darkness, one could almost smell the salt in the ocean water. Whether in the violent Storm, with simply outstanding playing from the LSO brass, or the opening Dawn with the woodwinds bubbling up in those watery arpeggios, or the strings pouring forth the gentle, mournful Moonlight – rarely do ensembles produce this kind of magic. To call Sir Colin’s work evocative in these set pieces would be a pitiful understatement. And if the orchestra has experienced some "turbulent" times (see Marc Bridle’s review of Richard Morrison’s new book on the LSO), the only turbulence here was in some of Britten’s more ferocious climaxes, when Davis evoked some positively scary and thrilling sounds.

The London Symphony Chorus, who received a thunderous ovation during the curtain calls, was particularly riveting in the rhythmically treacherous Old Joe has gone fishing (whose innocent title belies its tricky metre). Diction was excellent all afternoon, and some of the more unusual vocal effects stood out, such as the sinister quizzing in Act II when they ask, What is it? What do you suppose? Here they produced sibilant, nasty "ssst" sounds that, helped by Britten’s overlapping vocal lines, blurred the result as if the singers had been transformed into a den of snakes.

During the final scene, in a small but stunning stroke that made me think of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, the entire group slowly turned their backs on the audience and the cast, and only then did they breathe their eerie calls of "Grimes!" over and over, whilst facing the rear wall of the stage. Led by director Joseph Cullen’s head visible through a small aperture, the faint, high-pitched textures seemed to drift down from the ceiling, and the visual impact was astonishing in its chilling matter-of-factness. For Britten’s masterpiece, Sir Colin & Co. just clinched it.

Bruce Hodges

See, also, review of the London performance here.




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