Today (March 15 2008) the Metropolitan Opera presented Benjamin Britten ‘s most famous opera, Peter Grimes (1945). It was broadcast to various theaters around the country. I missed that because of a film event at the Archives (movie blog), but I had rented the DVD of the 1981 performance by Colin Davis with the London Royal Opera House and John Vickers as Peter Grimes. The “film” from Kultur and Warner Brothers is directed by John Vernon. The source material comes from a poem by George Crabbe and a libretto by Montagu Slater. I also saw this opera in Dallas at Fair Park around 1985.
Most opera lovers know the story. In the early 1800s one of Peter’s young fisherman apprentices has died. The court lets him off, but then he hires another one, who also dies in an accident. The townspeople are in a vigilante mood, and the opera moves toward a tragic end at sea.
The original source material presented the relationship between Peter and the apprentices as likely to be pederastic and legally and morally criminal and inappropriate. In the stage and film versions of the opera, this element is not made conspicuous, and the problem of oppression of those who seem “different” and the idea that such individuals will be suspected of giving in to “temptation” is explored. We all know the controversies in the media about this. The tendency toward “mob justice” or vigilantism becomes a major theme.
The music contains a lot of polytonality, a lot of motives in ascending and descending half steps, and sounds original, eclectic, and English. It does not sound as much like very late Mahler as does the later opera Billy Budd (reviewed in February), or even the War Requiem, which I think is Britten’s idea of the requiem mass that Mahler would have eventually composed had Mahler lived long enough. The “Sea Interludes” and Passacaglia are often performed in concert, and are most effective. Britten’s last opera, “Death in Venice,” based on Mann’s novella, comes across as a meditation on AIDS (by metaphor) now (it may have helped inspire Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) ; but I saw it in the 1970s in New York at the Met (and remember Tadzio hanging from the ceiling in the dream scenes). The orchestral suite, available on Chandos, sounds like late Mahler, the mood of the Mahler Ninth first movement (“where modern music begins”). Was Britten "the English Mahler"? Or does that honor go to Havergal Brian (with the "Gothic" Symphony)? Despite the choruses of the latter and the apocalypse at the end, the short first movement is absolutely crushing.
I wanted to mention that I also attended the Shostakovich 13th Symphony in Dallas at the Hall of State in 1987 with the Turtle Creek Chorale as the male chorus. The text (Yevtushenko) has the quote (translated): “A certain scientist, Galileo’s contemporary, was no more stupid than Galileo. He knew that the earth revolves, but he had a family. And when he got into a carriage with his wife, after accomplishing his betrayal, he reckoned he was advancing his career, but in fact he’d wrecked it.”
Ever notice?: the musical trademark for New Line Cinema closely resembles a major motive in Peter Grimes.