by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Feb. 2, 2004.
Maybe there is a saving grace in the fact that New York gets to hear “Peter Grimes” so seldom—every five years, on average. Benjamin Britten’s beautiful and terrifying masterpiece, the tale of an antisocial East Anglian fisherman whose apprentices have a habit of dying on the job, has not yet lost its capacity to surprise; it clobbers us anew with each revival. “Grimes” ranks high among operas of the past century, not only because the music is so fiendishly good but because the music and the words together propel a debate that never stops raging. You are drawn into the melee from the moment the curtain rises, and leave feeling exhilarated, even though the journey is as dark as theatre gets.
Why the opera has never caught on at the Met is a puzzle. The house last presented it in 1998, and no revival seems imminent. Last week, “Grimes” fans gratefully turned to the London Symphony Orchestra, which presented a concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall. Under the direction of Colin Davis, the L.S.O. has made a habit of descending on New York in the middle of winter and electroshocking the city out of its seasonal affective disorder with galvanic programs of works both familiar and unexpected. The orchestra is a venerable one, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, but it plays with the kind of isn’t-music-amazing enthusiasm that you usually hear only in student ensembles. Where the extra edge comes from is anyone’s guess. Reading Richard Morrison’s new history of the L.S.O., I got the sense that the orchestra’s diverse activities in music education, film-score recording, and crossover projects have made its “classical” playing less routine. In any case, it seems fitting that this ever youthful group should mark its centenary not by putting on a pompous gala but by unleashing “Grimes,” the Hound of the Baskervilles of the operatic repertory.
There are essentially two schools of thought on “Grimes.” One is the outcast-persecuted-by-society, or Popular Front, reading, to which the composer and the librettist both subscribed. According to this view, Grimes is a difficult, unlikable man—a rageaholic, let’s say—but he is not to blame for the deaths of his two apprentices, the first of whom drowns before the opera begins and the second of whom falls off a cliff in Act II. The fisherman is the victim of a lynch mob; the villagers expiate their own sins by making him their scapegoat. Mrs. Sedley, the opium-addicted busybody who accuses Grimes of murder, is a diseased Miss Marple who has been searching all her life for a crime equal to her hallucinations. The attack on Grimes can be seen as an allegory of the persecution of homosexuals and pacifists (Britten was both) or of Communists (Montagu Slater, the librettist, was one). Indeed, the villagers often chatter viciously among themselves like an Un-Anglian Activities Committee: “Him who despises us / we’ll destroy!”
Then, there is George Crabbe’s poem “Peter Grimes,” which inspired the opera. Crabbe was born in 1754 in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, where the story is set and where Britten wrote most of the score. The poet heard tell of a cruel fisherman who was thought to have caused the deaths of several boys, and from that rumor he wove the character of Grimes. He created a horrible but compelling brute whose soliloquies sometimes rise to Shakespearean grandeur. The abuse of the boys is not only physical but possibly also sexual: “Strange that a frame so weak could bear so long / The grossest insult and the foulest wrong.” The villagers’ only crime is that they fail to notice what is going on. Britten had originally intended to make a faithful adaptation of this ghastly material; his early sketches, which can be seen in the Britten archive in Aldeburgh, repeatedly refer to the deaths of the boys as “murders.” It was Slater who pulled the opera in the direction of social allegory. Britten himself softened the character at the last minute, perhaps fearing a scandal.
Enter Colin Davis. In the sixties and seventies, at the Met and at Covent Garden, he conducted sensational performances of “Grimes” in which all the violence of Crabbe rose to the surface. His ally was the tenor Jon Vickers, who sang the title role with an emotional nakedness that trained singers seldom achieve onstage. On the classic recording that Davis and Vickers made, you can hear Grimes’s universal anger in the first minute of the inquest scene that begins the opera, just in the way he sings “I swear by Almighty God.” Vickers also made Grimes a high-dramatic role rather than the lyric creation of Peter Pears, who first played the part. Britten disliked Vickers’s interpretation, but the intentional fallacy applies as much to music as to literature: the composer had no right to censor rival readings of his own work, nor did he try.
Was the Davis-Vickers “Grimes” really so opposed to Britten’s original vision? The music points many times to the sadist in Grimes, often enough to make you question whether he is a remotely defensible character. The passacaglia interlude in Act II depicts, according to the composer’s own testimony, the suffering of John, Grimes’s second apprentice; individual phrases describe the boy’s tears, his fears, his pain. The great climaxes of the opera embody the village’s hatred of Grimes; but here the orchestra hints at the boy’s hatred, which is another matter altogether. Another buried clue: at the very end of the act, after John dies, the solo viola, which in Britten’s music typically represents the voice of innocence, plays a figure in consecutive rising minor thirds. It is a slowed-down, stretched-out version of a line that the preacher Boles sang in the previous act: “His exercise is not with men but killing boys!” It sounds very much like the accusation of a ghost. Notably, Crabbe’s poem is full of Banquo-like spirits who torment Grimes unto madness and death.
Davis’s command of “Grimes” has grown ever more certain with the passing years. The L.S.O.’s playing in the “Storm” Interlude was so unrelentingly ferocious that I almost wanted to laugh out loud: these impeccable musicians were thrashing around like a punk band on crystal meth. There was little effort at naturalistic sea textures; the interlude portrays, after all, both the external storm hitting the Borough and the storm within Grimes’s mind. But it wasn’t all sound and fury. The softly arching violin phrases that evoke the eye of the storm (and also “Grimes’s ecstasy,” according to Britten) hovered in the distance like a mirage. And I was struck by how seamlessly the interludes meshed with the whole. In the opera house, with stage noises coming from behind the curtain, the interludes sometimes have a fitful, awkward effect. This time, we seemed to be hearing the music as the composer first heard it in his mind, in the Old Mill outside Aldeburgh village, at the height of the Second World War.
Alas, Jon Vickers retired years ago, and Davis has not found a satisfying or even satisfactory replacement. I would not want to judge Glenn Winslade on the basis of this one outing; the tenor began to lose his voice at the end of Act II and was plainly not himself in the crucial Mad Scene. In a broadcast of “Grimes,” which I caught on the BBC’s Radio 3 Web site, he had no such troubles and demonstrated a sturdy, noble voice. But, even disregarding his vocal struggles, Winslade seemed the wrong man for the part. He displayed neither the poetry of the dreamer nor the cruelty of the sadist. Anthony Michaels-Moore was a rock-solid Balstrode; Jill Grove was a big-voiced, big-hearted Auntie; Janice Watson was a strongly lyrical, if perhaps too composed, Ellen Orford. The London Symphony Chorus, like the orchestra, achieved maximum expressive intensity without ever losing control.
It is a tribute to Davis’s authority that the difficulties of the lead tenor hardly registered. I had the impression that in this performance the conductor was reconciling the two schools of Grimesian thought. He pointedly showed no sympathy for the villagers, limiting their opportunities for local color. Even the merrymaking scenes were driven along at a neurotic tempo. Yet a monumental rendition of the “boy’s suffering” interlude, together with Paul Silverthorne’s impassioned viola solo, implied that Grimes was guilty of something frightful, if not Mrs. Sedley’s “murder most foul.” It’s not unlike the morally tortuous situation in Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” in which a corrupt detective plants incriminating evidence on the man who actually committed the murder in question. No one is pure; all share in the guilt. In the end, as Grimes’s boat sinks off the coast, there is one last overwhelming wave of sound: the ocean rolls in to wash away every trace of the indecipherable tragedy.
As it happens, Richard Morrison’s history notes that in 1912 the L.S.O. came close to sharing Grimes’s watery fate. An American impresario booked all hundred musicians on the Titanic, but at the last minute he moved them to a different ship. It would have been a terrible loss, and also one hell of a performance of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”