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'Peter Grimes' at the SLSO, Benjamin Britten in St. Louis

Benjamin Britten in 1968

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - When music director David Robertson takes the podium Saturday to lead the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” light will shine brighter on an already luminous musical tradition in St. Louis. That tradition is the unusual concentration of performances here of music composed by the celebrated musical polymath, a history distinguished by quality and creativity, most certainly -- but also by the sheer frequency of productions.

A St. Louis Symphony spokesperson recently said he quit counting when he got to 50 performances by the orchestra of works by Britten. We can add to the count the imminent “Peter Grimes,” to be performed here on Saturday and again at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 22. Come May 2014, “Les Illuminations,” a song cycle by Britten, with lyrics by Arthur Rimbaud, will be performed at Powell Hall.

In 1976, for its inaugural season, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, brought Britten’s jewel-like comic masterpiece “Albert Herring” to the Loretto-Hilton stage, and the show contributed significantly to the accelerated launching of the company into local popularity and national acclaim. Two years later, Opera Theatre revisited the show, taped for television in the first-ever joint production of the BBC and WNET, New York.

Union Avenue Opera produced Britten’s opera for children, “The Little Sweep,” in 1996 and “The Turn of the Screw” in 2006. The latter also was produced by Opera Theatre and by the Department of Music at Washington University. In addition to all of this, works by Britten frequently are heard in church services, chamber ensembles and recitals. For example, the Webster University Choirs presented a Benjamin Britten Centenary Concert in the Shepley Concert Series at Christ Church Cathedral in March.

The music of Britten is central in the repertory of many individual outstanding singers as well, the soprano Christine Brewer among them. An Illinois native and resident of Lebanon, her professional career began in the Opera Theatre chorus, and, in part at least, she has sung her way into the musical stratosphere in performances of Britten roles.

Her first major role in the U.S. was Ellen Orford in Opera Theatre’s 1990 production of “Peter Grimes.” From that beginning she has sung principal roles in a number of operas by Britten – Lady Billows in “Albert Herring,” the Female Chorus in “The Rape of Lucretia,” Queen Elizabeth I in “Gloriana.” That last work was commissioned to celebrate the young queen’s coronation in 1953. In 2003, the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascent to the throne, Brewer sang “‘Gloriana” at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival. And she reigned again in Opera Theatre’s triumphant production of this golden jubilee work in 2005.

“Warts and all!” Brewer said admiringly the other day about Britten’s limning of Elizabeth I, and she extended this observation to others who populate the Britten universe.

“Britten presents characters in all their complexity” – their deficiencies as well as their strengths, Brewer said, and this reflects what she regards as his scrupulous honesty, a characteristic she particularly appreciates in his work, along with his humanity and his flawless integration of English language narrative and music. “Perfection” was her description.

The British composer and Britten contemporary, the late Nicholas Maw, agreed. "His feeling for poetry (not only English) and the inflections of language make him, I think, the greatest musical realizer of English."

On Nov. 23 at the Barbican in London, Brewer will sing Lady Billows once again, this time in a partially staged production on the night immediately following Britten’s 100th birthday. Soon thereafter, she’ll fly to San Francisco to sing Britten’s “War Requiem” on Nov. 27 and Nov. 30 in the San Francisco Symphony’s tribute to Britten.

Brewer is no stranger to the “War Requiem,” Britten’s denunciation of war, a work considered by many to be his greatest achievement. She has sung it here with the St. Louis Symphony and recorded it in 2005 with Kurt Masur conducting the London Philharmonic.

'Peter Grimes'

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who will sing the title role in the St. Louis Symphony’s “Peter Grimes,” sang the part for the recording. Since, he has earned international acclaim for his realization of the role and has come to own it.

“Peter Grimes” is a dark and disturbing story, a surgery into a world of injustice, madness and untimely deaths. The writer Montagu Slater adapted the libretto from George Crabbe’s poem, “The Borough.” It is rightly reckoned a masterpiece of the 20th century repertory.

Edward Benjamin Britten was born Nov. 22, 1913, at Lowestoft, Suffolk, a North Sea fishing port and resort situated on the easternmost edge of the United Kingdom. It is about an hour up the coast from Aldeburgh, where Britten eventually settled with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. They and the writer Eric Crozier created the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. At nearby Snape Maltings, they transformed an abandoned 19th century malt house into the Snape Maltings Concert Hall. The name of the festival was changed a few years ago to Aldeburgh Music.

Although Britten’s private life and political beliefs were controversial in their day, all that was pushed quite to the margins when the queen named him a life peer, creating him Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk in 1976.

All that ennobling aside, as a pianist and accompanist, a conductor and a composer, Britten occupies, without any question, a central front row seat in the pantheon of true geniuses our time.

In one of the videos produced for Britten 100, the official website of the Britten centenary, the mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker remembers her friend and colleague is being “thrice great” – a unique composer whose brilliant piano playing was allied to his conducting, “which again was quite remarkable,” thrusting him into the “most extraordinary category.”

“Every time he picked up the baton” Baker said,” it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.”

The Britten connection

Two of Britten’s countrymen deserve the credit for establishing a Britten foothold in St. Louis.

First is Richard Gaddes, the founding general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, now retired from that same position at the Santa Fe Opera. His and Britten’s paths crossed at the Wigmore Hall in London where Britten performed regularly and where Gaddes (who also created a lunchtime program there for young singers) turned pages for Britten in his occupation as accompanist, providing, as Janet Baker remarked, accompaniment of the highest order.

“When you look at the repertory of an opera company,” Gaddes said, “you know it reflects, at least in part, the taste of the director. So I can honestly say, yes, the selection of works by Britten was due partially to my influence. I chose ‘Albert Herring’ for the first season, for example, and that absolutely was an indication of things to come. It is such a great ensemble piece, perfect for showing off the talents of a cast of eight or nine singers. It balanced the season -- and it was fun. It was the right choice for the ensemble company we were trying to create.

“It happens that, with the exception of ‘Peter Grimes,’ Britten’s operas don’t require huge dramatic voices and the good pieces are quite doable by companies such as Opera Theatre.”

Beyond that, Gaddes is quick to ascribe greater credit to the late Colin Graham for establishing the dynamic and sustaining connection to Britten and his work.

Graham was a formidably brilliant stage director of operas by a host of composers, and he directed them in opera houses all over the place, but he had particularly strong ties to Britten and his work. Having worked closely with him at Aldeburgh, Graham brought to St. Louis a special understanding of Britten’s intentions, the kind of ingrained understanding often passed from mentor to protégé.

In an obituary of Graham in 2007, Alan Blyth of the Guardian wrote, “He was, as it were, brought up professionally as an acolyte of Benjamin Britten, directing most of the stagings of the English Opera Group (EOG), Britten's small opera company, from the 1950s to the ‘70s. With EOG he was responsible for the premieres of, among others, Britten's church parables – ‘Curlew River’ (1964), ‘The Burning Fiery Furnace’ (1966) and ‘The Prodigal Son’ (1968) – and ‘Death in Venice’ (1973), all as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, and for many of the second productions or the composer's earlier works. He also realized Britten's television opera ‘Owen Wingrave’ (1971).

“Graham always said how much he owed to and enjoyed working with Britten. He once commented: ‘He was a kind of surrogate father to me, there's no doubt about that.’”

Britten died the same year Opera Theatre was established. Graham came to St. Louis two years later, in 1978, and was director of productions for the company from then to 1985, when he was named artistic director. He held that title until his death.

'Noah's Flood'

During that time, no fewer than eight operas by Britten were produced, plus two of his three church parables (given memorable performances at Christ Church Cathedral) and “Noah’s Flood” in 1990, mounted at the St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church on North Grand Boulevard.

“Noah’s Flood” – properly “Noye’s Fludde” – was produced by Grand Center (headed by this time by Gaddes, who left Opera Theatre in 1987) and directed by Graham. Many of the cast members were drawn from the surrounding neighborhood. “Noah’s Flood” marked the first artistic collaboration between the neighborhood and the Grand Center organization.

“It was a great feather in our cap for Opera Theatre to do the church operas, and that was Colin’s idea,” Gaddes said. “And ‘Noah’s Flood’ surely must have been the influence of Colin as well.”

I’ve seen most everything Opera Theatre has produced over the years, and while there have been moments that surpassed “Noah’s Flood” artistically, nothing is fixed as brightly in my memory as that show done in that historic church on Grand.

The procession of the animals, that exuberant chorus of children, drawn from the north city neighborhood, wearing the masks they created themselves; the energy and spontaneity not only of the children but of all the cast and other musicians; the warm and enthusiastic responses of audiences -- plus the voice of God that seemed, well, truly the Voice of God – all of that conspired to create an indelible work of art.

Gaddes has a special memory of “Noah’s Flood.”

“There was a boy in the cast who was skeptical and not cooperative at all. But soon he was drawn into the opera, and on the Sunday we were clearing up and emptying the church of the sets and props, he stood just watching, and I think, grieving.

“I watched him walking home, slowly and all alone, up North Grand, and I have often thought for a while he found a surrogate family in ‘Noah’s Flood.’

“The experience was, I think, transfiguring for him.”

For him, and perhaps, by extension, transfiguring for all of us who have discovered that soul-scouring honesty Brewer talked about, and have discovered so much about ourselves in the abiding power of the works of Benjamin Britten, none more powerful than the crepuscular tragedy that is “Peter Grimes.”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.