Avery Fisher Hall
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Glenn Winslade (tenor), Janice Watson (Ellen Orford), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode), Jill Grove (Auntie), Sally Matthews (First niece), Alison Buchanan (Second niece), Christopher Gillet (Bob Boles), James Rutherford (Swallow), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Sedly), Ryland Davies (Rev Horace Adams), Richard Byrne(Ned Keene), Jonathan Lemalu (Hobson)
London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus
Colin Davis (conductor)
On the same weekend that hundreds of people gathered for the post-arraignment party for Michael Jackson, thousands assembled at Avery Fisher Hall to consider the similar case of one Peter Grimes (indeed it was in Southern California that Britten first conceived of the opera after reading an article by E. M. Forster). Since my good friend and colleague H.E. Elsom beat me to the punch and already reviewed this production in these pages from the other side of the pond last week, I will attempt to limit my comments about yesterday’s performance to a few elaborations.
Concert versions of opera are notoriously difficult to pull off, particularly since the row of singers must intone directly in front of the entire orchestra on the same sonic plane. Without the anonymity of the pit, the instrumental ensemble almost invariably dominates, as it did this day. However, what was quite impressive was that these particular singers, all of a high quality, did not lose their solid intonations when forced to sing forte virtually continuously, the leader of the band, Sir Colin, refusing to compromise by toning down his forces as an accommodation. Further, the singers had to compete with a chorus much larger than a similar body in a staged production and one positioned for maximum impact. This reviewer was most impressed with Jill Grove as Auntie, but all of the roles, major and minor, were audible and reasonably pristine, the singers forced to emote and establish character without the benefit of gesture or facial nuance. Even with these constraints, there was a palpable sense of drama throughout. The Grimes, Glenn Winslade, faltered somewhat in the second act, sounding very dry in the mouth in this particular performance, but made a nice recovery and overall brought quite a lot of sympathy to the role (there are two schools of thought on this: an even more powerful approach could be to make this particular protagonist absolutely vile in every detail).
My companion remarked that it was a pity that Lorin Maazel was not in the audience, for then he could have heard what a really good orchestra actually sounds like at Avery Fisher. The LSO was extraordinary in this reading, pliable and expressive. Unfettered and front and center, they made the most of their opportunity to play at the highest level, the brass particularly impressive in the devilishly difficult second Sea Interlude. For all of the raging of and against nature with which Britten so masterfully frontloads the piece, it was the quiet endings of acts two and three that were the most memorable, the solo viola of Paul Silverthorne holding everyone in the sold-out house emotionally captive. And a special bravo for Sir Colin, a big orchestral thinker, who kept the balances finely tuned and the drama paramount in our collective consciousness. This was the finest performance of any work that I have heard all season long. It may only be surpassed this year when Mr. Jackson finally has his day in court.
Frederick L. Kirshnit