© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reflection: Symphony's 'Peter Grimes' triumphs at Carnegie Hall

Left to Right: Baritone Liam Bonner as Ned Keene, soprano Susanna Phillips as Ellen Orford, and Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes.
Julien Jourdes
Left to Right: Baritone Liam Bonner as Ned Keene, soprano Susanna Phillips as Ellen Orford, and Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - NEW YORK - All is metaphor.

From the embroidery floss used by Ellen Orford to draw the anchor on the sweater of poor, doomed John the Apprentice, to the churning, life-sustaining, murderous tumult of the ocean, each ordinary material, every massive natural phenomenon, all human emotions, all have meaning well beyond the accepted or conscious.

Each is an element of Benjamin Britten’s "Peter Grimes;" and every turn the malignant majesty of this opera takes is thick, yes, and embroidered, with metaphor. When we come to the conclusion, the wrenching and horrible finale, the name "Peter Grimes" itself, repeated over and over and over with recursive force, like a devil’s mantra, becomes the supreme and encompassing metaphor of this opera, which may well be the greatest operatic achievement of our time.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus brought "Peter Grimes" to Carnegie Hall Friday evening in its entire dark splendor, performed by them and a peerless cast of brilliant, young singers, and conducted by its music director, the unquestioned genius David Robertson. Its magnificence struck the near-sellout audience in the hall with nothing less than the force of revelation.

Pause and pandemonium

When first presented in London in 1945 shortly after the conclusion of World War II, a silent, 30-second pause greeted the performance after the final curtain fell. Everyone backstage and in the orchestra pit of the production was desolate. It appeared all efforts were in vain. Then: pandemonium. The enthusiasm that greeted the opera that night has never ceased in 68 years. It takes one’s breath away.

A similar pause when the last notes faded away greeted the St. Louis "Peter Grimes" Friday evening.

Following that echoing silence, the New York audience, having absorbed the substance of what had been presented to it, rose as one to its feet and cheered, clapping, shouting bravos, for 10 full minutes, perhaps more.  As former Opera Theatre of St. Louis general director Richard Gaddes said, "It gets no better than this." Indeed.

I lost count of the curtain calls, not for lack of wanting to tally but because of the democratic and egalitarian spirit and erratic, unrehearsed spontaneity of them. Everyone was in motion. Everyone wanted to make certain his or her colleagues moved forward for his or her bow. The maestro was over here, then over there. The orchestra was brought to its feet again and again.

Soloists were recognized. Concertmaster David Halen was hugged.  The principal viola was singled out for special honors. It was glorious moment to be savored and treasured — I am certain — for young Garrett Boyer, who played the silent but enormously powerful role of John the apprentice. He, after all, assumed the role of the pivot around which this opera moves. And he must be forever wiser, transfigured perhaps, for his part in this show.

Britten and America

I have listened and I have watched this orchestra for 50 years now, not as a critic but as a reporter. I have followed it everywhere from the Kiel Opera House to Powell Hall to sweaty outdoor concerts in Forest Park, and more glamorously, on tours to Europe and to Japan, and now, last night, to rejoice with it in this most moving and appropriate celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday in this temple of music on 57th Street, Carnegie Hall.

Another view

As Richard Fairman noted in "Gramophone" last spring, Britten packed everything into this opera:

“Other operas may count among their highlights a passacaglia (‘Wozzeck’), grand choruses (‘Otello’), an all-female ensemble (‘Der Rosenkavalier’)  or a mad scene (‘Lucia di Lammermoor’); none had previously packed its rich pudding of a score with the whole lot.”

All this contributed to the enormous, universal success of the piece. What hit the opening night audience in 1946, and subsequent audiences – certainly the audience last evening at Carnegie Hall – was not a spectacle but indeed the mad, lonely fisherman, perhaps more sinned against than sinning, Britten’s Lear, the tragic Peter Grimes.

As a sort of patriotic aside, I believe it is important for American audiences to know "Peter Grimes" not only for its towering artistic merits but also because the opera has significant American connections. It is fair for us to claim some ownership of the opera because of these connections.

When Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, fled England in 1939 for political or personal reasons or both, they went first to Canada, then to New York and also out to California, to Escondido, a town nestled in a valley northeast of San Diego. This interlude was in 1941.

Along the way, the British literary luminary, E.M. Forster, introduced them to the poetry of the 18th-19th century poet George Crabbe. As the story goes, Pears then found a book of Crabbe’s poems in a second-hand bookseller’s shop in Los Angeles, and in it, voila!, there was the story of Peter Grimes.

Both Pears and Britten were deeply affected by the melancholy (if not tragic) nature of the story; by the societal injustices it revealed, which as gay men they took to heart; by the wrenching psychological complexities of it; and by the essential and affecting Britishness of it. Within it, too, could be heard a siren song calling this couple home, and home to the east coast of England they came, and settled in at Aldeburgh.  

Monster or victim

The couple embraced the story and chose to make an opera of it. They chose Charles Montagu Slater, the poet, librettist, playwright and novelist, to write the libretto, based on Letter XXII in Crabbe’s poem, "The Borough," published in 1810.

"Peter Grimes" would emerge, to indulge in a gross understatement, as something infinitely, overwhelmingly, heroically greater than Britten’s previous work for the stage, the comparatively inconsequential operetta "Paul Bunyan."

The story of "Peter Grimes” went through a series of artistic wringers with Pears and Britten at the crank helping to shape it. Because of its obvious intimations of pedophilia and homosexuality, and because there were suspicions Britten intended it as a polemic addressed to the scourge of homophobia, the libretto was put under the political microscope by its creators and for them was the cause of trepidation.  

It survived all this, transcended it. However, in 1948, Time magazine reported Britten’s characterizing "Peter Grimes” as simply the struggle of the individual against the masses. More to the point: “The more vicious the society,” he continued, “the more vicious the individual.”

That representation, I suggest, is baloney, but baloney with some truth — the truth of a vengeful society presented in high relief in the opera, a story of a townspeople’s relentless hectoring and condemnations and spiritual demolishing of this character, Grimes.

The sculpturing of ambiguity in this relief is more delicate, so that in the end, we are asked to decide whether Grimes, as his Borough would have it, is a grotesque monster or, in a more cosmic sense, an aggrieved victim. It is a question not easily answered and is pondered painfully.

There is no escaping the fact his behavior is monstrous; and Anthony Dean Griffey’s Grimes leaves no doubt of Grimes’s culpability. Yet in Griffey’s portrayal there is an evident kindness, and his ostracization — before apprentices were involved — would crush the most self-confident soul. Rather like "Breaking Bad’s" Walter White and "The Sopranos'" Tony, the listener/viewer is tossed about on waves of ambivalence and at times falls prey to an inclination to root for the bad guy to win, also known as being in sympathy with the devil.

In the symphony’s realization of this opera we are left in this quandary; I was anyway. Griffey’s Grimes flies from victim to monster like a bat or a barn swallow, rushing hither and you, dipping, diving, in unpredictable patterns. His embraces of young John seem here paternal and loving, but alternately murderous and psychopathic. Both of which, depending on one’s prejudices, suggest either pedophilia or psychopathology or naïveté, or all of that.

The townspeople, although generally disposed to damn Peter, have moments of ambivalence and generosity, which turn quickly to vengeance. They too should think twice. Rarely do they.

Capt. Balstrode (sung by the magnificent Alan Held) and the kindly if extraordinarily naïve Ellen Orford (who was brought brilliantly to life by the glorious singing of Susanna Phillips) seem saintly by comparison to the Borough rabble. Their humane attempts to bring Grimes to heel and to put him on the road to some sort of redemption, ultimately must be sent into the ocean to sink and to perish with him.

Although we, in our comfortable seats, saw the mad tragedy coming down the aisles, and as we watched and listened in horror as the conclusion was reached, we learned a most serious lesson — not literally sending off boys to die, but about prejudices that destroy our fellow human beings and infect society, and create not only the monsters but corrupt us as well, the good citizens who either watch and wait, or turn our heads, or dissemble, the better not to see. 

All the cast — Griffey, that estimable heir to Pears; Phillips; Held; Meredith Arwady; Leela Subramania; Summer Hassan; Thomas Cooley; Patrick Carfizzi; Nancy Mautlsby; Keith Boyer; Liam Bonner; David Pittsinger, and the key player, Garrett Boyer — plus Amy Kaiser and her chorus  take us inexorably to the tragic and heartbreaking conclusion of this modern Everyman, and leaving the hall, ringing in our ears, is the inescapable metaphor, "Peter Grimes."

An afterword

"Peter Grimes” constitutes one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. Its composer, whose 100th birthday was celebrated around the world yesterday in concerts and exultant sing-a-longs, is now considered by many to be the fourth in the pantheon of the "B”s.

This titanic opera “Peter Grimes" was performed last evening in one of the world’s most prestigious music halls by an orchestra increasingly mentioned in similarly glowing terms as one of the world’s finest symphonic ensembles, conducted by a music director of the highest professional ranking.

St. Louis remains a city faced with enormous challenges, as evidenced by last week’s report by The New York Times on our city’s northern precincts. We ignore those challenges and the truths that inform them at our peril. But as the region works to reinvent itself for the 21st century, it is obligatory to take stock of our valued resources as well. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is certainly among them.

Friday night, at Carnegie Hall, David Robertson, the chorus of the symphony, a cast of young but glistening stars, brought down the house.

Ten minutes of ovations! It was an occasion that deserves finest-hour description, and our appreciation. In recognition of our capabilities, our strengths and our deficiencies, we face our need to make our world and our region better and stand in awe of our strong place in the world of international artistic accomplishment.


The impressive chorus (Amy Kaiser, director) and the orchestra, which is sounding great these days under the dynamic Mr. Robertson, its music director, conveyed not just the seething emotions in this climax but also the hint of maniacal glee that runs through the music. | New York Times

It is impossible to recall or imagine more emotionally riveting music-making than that heard in Carnegie Hall Friday night. Every instance of sound was both brilliantly musical in the abstract and an intensely affecting expression. | New York Classical Review

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.