Thursday, November 14, 2013

Great Britten: The symphony presents Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" in concert Saturday, November 16, 2013

Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes in Toronto
Writing in the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, Donald Paine notes that Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," written for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, "may stand as representative of his genius and of the theme that recurs throughout his work: the indictment of human folly as it shows itself both in the tragedy and wastage of war and in the corruption of human innocence."

Those themes are present both in the "War Requiem" and in Britten's 1945 tragic opera "Peter Grimes."  Coincidentally, both works are being performed this weekend in the Midwest: the "War Requiem" in a series of concerts in Chicago Thursday through Sunday and "Peter Grimes" in a special concert performance on Saturday night here in St. Louis by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

The Chicago performances are part of the Chicago Symphony's regular subscription series.  The Saturday special here is a preview of the "Peter Grimes" the symphony will be presenting in Carnegie Hall in New York on Friday, November 22nd—the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth.  It's one of over 1000 special concert events being presented this year to celebrate the great English composer's centenary; you can see a complete list at the Britten 100 web site.

Benjamin Britten
London Records 1968
publicity photo
Born in East Anglia in 1913, Britten studied composition with Frank Bridge and John Ireland.  He lived in the USA from 1939 to 1942 and then returned to settle in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where he would remain the rest of his life.  Although he got international attention with his "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge" for strings in 1937, it wasn't until the 1940s that his music began to achieve widespread acceptance, with performances of his "Ceremony of Carols" (a worldwide favorite around this time of year), the "Sinfonia da Requiem," and, of course, "Peter Grimes"—a huge hit with audiences and critics alike in 1945.  By the time Britten died in 1976 he was firmly established as one of the most important figures in 20th century music.

Most classical fans are familiar with the "Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes."  These little gems are powerfully evocative of the geographical and psychological landscape of the opera.  They're also a nice distillation of what you can expect from the complete performance of the opera on Saturday.

Inspired by a section of the poem "The Borough" by clergyman and poet George Crabbe (1754-1832), the story revolves around the persecution of the title character – a sullen and socially awkward fisherman – by the denizens of a small coastal fishing village.  In the poem he's a clear villain but in Montagu Slater's libretto it's ambiguous how much of Grimes's tragic end is his fault and how much the result of persecution by villagers.  What's not ambiguous is that, even at the relatively young age of 31, Britten was already a master of orchestral color and mood.

"Britten," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes, "declared that the struggle between the exceptional individual and society was ‘a subject very close to my heart.' That Peter Grimes portrays that struggle through a decidedly flawed character, less hero than anti-hero, makes it a challenging work but not a less compelling one."  It's also possible that Britten intended the work to serve, to some extent, as a condemnation of the homophobia which Britten, as a gay man, saw quite clearly in British society.

The soloists for Saturday's performance include tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes (a role he has sung often, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York), soprano Susanna Phillips as schoolmistress Ellen Orford (who suspects—but can't prove—that Grimes might be abusing his young apprentice, John), bass-baritone Alan Held as Captain Balstrode (in whom Ellen confides), and contralto Meredith Arwady as Auntie (who helps stir the mob up against Grimes).  David Robertson conducts the orchestra and chorus.

The chorus plays an important narrative role in "Peter Grimes," so precision in singing and diction will be important.  Fortunately chorus director Amy Kaiser has an awfully good track record in that regard.

"Peter Grimes" is a big undertaking for the symphony, which does a relatively small number of chorus and orchestra pieces every season and rarely anything on quite this scale.  Those chorus and orchestra concerts have, however, generally been season highlights, so I think you'll find it interesting to see and hear the results—and to see what the New York critics have to say on the 22nd.

"Peter Grimes" will be performed on Saturday, November 16, at 8 PM at Powell Hall and will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio at 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via streaming at the station's web site.  For more information:

This article originally appeared at, where Chuck Lavazzi is a performing arts blogger.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review of Winter Opera's "Faust"

Julia Ebner as Marguerite,Timothy J. Bruno as Mephistopheles
and Clay Hilley as Faust
© Ron Lindsey, 2013
Long regarded by many as one of the highlights of the French grand opera tradition, Gounod's "Faust"—a beautifully sung production of which opened Winter Opera’s season—actually started life in 1859 as an opéra comique with spoken dialog instead of recitatives and without large ballet sequences. It was only the addition of the former in 1860 and the latter in 1875 that elevated Faust to the position of eminence it held in opera houses for over a century.

But in dealing with weighty subjects the reach of Gounod and his librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré mostly exceed their grasp. The music still retains most of its power but the libretto has aged badly and now looks quaint and even dramatically inert at times.

"Satan", the a 1927 lyric by Leo Robin and Clifford Grey tells us, "lies awaitin' and creatin' clouds of gray."* In "Faust" Mephistopheles fills the lives of Faust, Marguerite, and Marguerite's family with clouds that aren't gray so much as the sort of greenish black we Midwesterners have come to associate with tornado season. By the end of Act 5 (Act 3 in this production), there has been enough death, scandal, and misery loosed upon the stage to fill up at least fifteen minutes of a cable news broadcast.

Julia Ebner as Marguerite,
Timothy J. Bruno as Mephistopheles
and Clay Hilley as Faust
© Ron Lindsey, 2013
This could be tremendously powerful stuff, but the libretto—based on Carré's play "Faust et Marguerite," which is very freely adapted from Part 1 of Goethe’s "Faust"—deals with it in such a pedestrian way that Faust, for example, comes off as little more than a shallow fool. Tenor Clay Hilley brought a truly wonderful voice to the role, fortunately, garnering his share of "bravos". His acting was not at quite at the level of his voice—his aged Faust was too exaggerated to be credible and his youthful Faust struck me as a bit bland—but there was no gainsaying the quality of his singing.

Soprano Julia Ebner was a very effective Marguerite, with a fine, supple voice and respectable acting chops. Bass Timothy J. Bruno’s Méphistophélès was also a vocal triumph, but I felt he failed to convey the character’s menace. His mocking Act 3 serenade, "Vous qui faites l'endormie," ideally a compelling display of sheer malevolence, felt under-played to me.

One of the strongest overall performances came from baritone Eric McKeever as Marguerite’s brother Valentin. "O sainte médaille," the Act 1 aria in which he entrusts the care of Marguerite to young Siébel (a "pants" role, nicely done by mezzo Cherry Duke) was a true showstopper and got the first "bravo" of the day.

John Stephens’s direction, while serviceable, was sometimes rather static. Ensemble scenes, in particular, tended to consist of having chorus members line up, face front, and sing with very little movement. Part of the problem, of course, was that Scott Loebl’s unit set consisted of a wall with a scrim stage left, a door unit center, and a set of stairs leading down to floor level stage right. The stone wall look was great, but its size tended to push all the action downstage. I would think those stairs could have been used in some of the chorus scenes to relieve the congestion.

The Act I waltz scene © Ron Lindsey, 2013
He did, on the other hand, come up with a neat solution to the problem posed by the lack of room for dancing in the famous Act 1 (original Act 2) waltz sequence.  He brought on a pair of ballroom dancers (Stephanie Medeiros and Atanas Pavlov) to do a flashy waltz number of their own.  They apparently beamed in from the 20th century, but it was certainly a theatrically effective moment.

JC Krajicek’s costumes (some of them ill fitting) seemed to have been assembled from several different shows, resulting in an opera that was apparently taking place in no fixed time or place. If that was designed to make the story more universal, I’m not sure it really worked. And that gray brocade suite for Faust made him look more silly than seductive.

Michael Mishra led the orchestra brilliantly, and their playing generally sounded quite polished. The instrumental/vocal balance was very good as well. I didn’t see a chorus master listed, but whoever rehearsed the ensemble did a fine job; the chorus sang with a precision and clarity that was wonderful to hear.

Winter Opera has come a long way in just seven seasons. Now that they’re getting some corporate sponsorship and have apparently settled in at the Viragh Center—one of the best musical theatre houses in town, hands down—I expect them to continue to be a critical part of the local opera scene. If they can get the theatrical aspects of their productions up to the same high level as the musical ones, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with.

Winter Opera’s next show is Verdi’s "Falstaff," one of the Italian master’s very best works, with a first-rate libretto by Boito. Performances are Friday and Sunday, February 7 and 9, 2014. There will also be another special "Holidays on the Hill" show December 10, 12, and 17 at Dominic’s Restaurant. Fore more information:

*"Hallelujah," from "Hit the Deck." Music is by Vincent Youmans

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.