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"Grimes" Has People Exercised

The Washington National Opera’s "Peter Grimes," which has one last performance on Saturday, is one of the best things I’ve seen the company do. (Their "Billy Budd" in 2004, which I didn’t see, was supposed to be equally fine, showing that they’re not just giving lip service to the cause of more recent opera, when they actually do stage it.)

But what I wrote in my preview came, once again, to pass: while some people fell madly in love with the opera, others still hate it and think it’s ugly modern music – or that the story is too unpleasant to be enjoyed.

We don’t shy away from “Carmen,” whose story is if anything more unpleasant, because we can hide behind all those pretty tunes. But "Grimes" is also chock-full of pretty tunes, just in a slightly more modern idiom. It’s true that Ilan Volkov, the conductor, didn’t do much to bring them out; the ensembles were frequently muddy on opening night. But it’s interesting to me that some people were repelled.

Here are a few random responses, from my e-mail and from comments on my review on the Washington Post website.

“I walked out after Act I… The dissonant notes and voices were very hard on the ears. One more reason why opera should neither be modern, nor in English.”
“I highly recommend to anyone within 100 miles of DC to run and see it. Great opera, great singing, great acting; a piece of musical theater that really makes you feel something.” (This was posted by a reader who wrote a long, enthusiastic review of "Grimes" on her own blog.)
“Peter Grimes is a masterpiece, and the WNO has a runaway hit on its hands, if there is any justice in the world.”
“I, and those around me, all of whom are season ticket holders, found this to be the worst opera performed by the WNO in several seasons.”
(read more)

Why the difference of opinion? Is it because "Peter Grimes" is such a strong work it makes people uncomfortable, and hasn’t been tamed, like "Carmen," through familiarity? Or is the work repellent in some way? Is Peter Grimes less likeable than, say, Verdi’s Otello, or Don Jose in "Carmen"? Do we need to like the characters in opera or drama in order to make the work appeal to us?

I'm curious what people think about this - and about how this difference of opinion extends to the music. Many critics have dismissed "Grimes," and Britten’s music in general, as being too lightweight and tonal; but the "Grimes" detractors I encounter seem often to find it ugly and dissonant.

However, one reader who e-mailed me about how much she'd disliked the opera, Manya Solos, ultimately ended our e-mail exchange with a nice observation: "I do so appreciate any piece of art that inspires both a strong positive and negative reaction."


There were other things to debate about the performance. Here's a view from Stephen Dunkel, a bass trombonist in the orchestra, who didn't object to my review but had this to add:

You used the phrase "unchecked orchestra." I'm sorry it came across that way, but we were checked - over and over again. Maestro Volkov worked continually on getting our volume down so singers would not need to battle over us. After singers were added at the Sitzprobe, dynamics were steadily and drastically lowered. Current performance levels seem to have no difference between "ppp" (and softer!) and "mf". Nearly all our fortissimo passages have been checked down to "mf".
He opines that there was some acoustic issue between the singers and the pit - though he concurred that the orchestra needed "a strong hand to enforce dynamic contrast."

Then there's the question of how Paul Curran's production from Santa Fe at WNO compares to John Doyle's recent production at the Metropolitan Opera. I heard of one audience member who had loved the production in Santa Fe but didn't like its WNO incarnation at all. Another felt that the Doyle production was much better - though it depends, I think, on whether you saw it live or via the HD broadcast, which I suspect brought more animation into what in the house appeared to me the production's stasis.

Any other thoughts on "Grimes," from those who have seen it or from those who haven't?

[A note on blog policy: I may sometimes post the names of people who leave comments on the Post's website without asking their permission, since they have already chosen to make their views public. But I will never post the words or name of someone who has e-mailed me directly without first clearing it with the person in question.]

By Anne Midgette  |  April 3, 2009; 6:04 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , from readers , opera  
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I absolutely adored it. It's always been a favourite but I had friends leave halfway. I always find this extremely puzzling, as I find Grimes to be an incredibly traditionally conceived work (storm scene, offstage church service, mad scene, drinking song). I don't even think it sounds dissonant. I often wonder if you can't connect 20th century opera to audiences through Grimes, what's the point?

Of the WNO productions I've seen this season, I thought it also had the most uniformly strong cast (but the weakest orchestral playing- perhaps because its the most difficult one they've done this year?).

Posted by: ianw2 | April 3, 2009 7:59 AM | Report abuse

I have not been able to "get into" many operas - the artificiality of the medium defeats my attempts at emotional engagement. The only foreign-language opera I've heard and been swept away by is "Jenufa," to give you an idea. So I went to the dress rehearsal for "Grimes" at WNO hopeful that the English language and modern idiom would allow me to enter more fully into the drama, and also with Alex Ross' exegesis of "Grimes" in "The Rest is Noise" in the back of my mind. And indeed, I got way into it. I now have two operas that I really like.

Like the commenter above, "Grimes" does not sound dissonant or challenging to me, but I listen to "harder" stuff for pleasure, so I guess I'm an outlier.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 3, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Peter Grimes is one of those operas (Wozzeck and Lulu are others) that I don't listen to at home but I love to see in theater. In a good production, I can barely keep my breath during and after the third act, and the WNO certainly was one of those. I wasn't disturbed as much about Volkov; the orchestra certainly seems more disciplined under him than under other conductors. The singing was good, though I agree about Racette's vibrato and hope is something only temporary.

As far as my 20th century opera tastes, I like some Richard Strauss pieces (Salome and Daphne in particular), but I generally prefer French works, Pelléas of course, but also less known ones as Roussel's Padmâvatî, Chausson's Le Roi Arthus, and Enescu's magnificent Oedipe - even though the last one was written (in French) by a Romanian composer. And I am looking forward hearing the complete Fervaal by Vincent D'Indy when Leon Botstein will conduct in in October in New York.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 3, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Good Day Anne,

I've seen you at many concerts and read your reviews for quite some time. You write beautifully and I've enjoyed your observations. I was quite surprised though when no one reviewed the recent and magnificent Evgeny Kissin concert. How is it possible that this most brilliant pianist tears down the house, and no one from the Post was there? I was shocked that there was no review.

On another note, when are we going to see The Obama's at a classical performance? I think it would be a stroke of genius if we could get them to the Monday open rehearsal of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra with Dudamel. This country needs something like Ek Sistema.

David Engel
Bethesda, MD

Posted by: davidengel58 | April 3, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

The Berlin State Opera Company has a powerful, multicultural production of George Enescu’s “Oedipe” waiting for the Washington National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Seattle Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, the San Francisco Opera, or the Houston Opera to borrow. I spoke with conductor Lawrence Foster soon after a Berlin performance, and he indicated that he would be interested in the opportunity to bring the work to Washington, D.C. Conductors Foster, Michael Gielen, and Ian Hobson (University of Illinois, 2006) have all recorded the work , and all three versions are commercially available. (The Gielen recording, on Naxos, doesn’t have a libretto, so you might need to find one on the computer or in a library.)

Alternatively, the Washington National Opera could stage its own production, perhaps in association with a revival of the comparable stage work by Washington’s equally renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company. In my opinion, the Enescu masterpiece is more worthy now, in the WNO’s history, of a professional production than is another revival by the company of R. Strauss’s “Salome” or “Elektra.”

I thought that Peter Grimes – like Billy Budd before it – was especially fine work by the company. I encouraged some colleagues and friends to go, and all of them were not disappointed -- even those who are musically very conservative (if not theatrically conservative). I found Patricia Racette’s performance very beautiful, powerful, and memorable. I will perhaps remember it even longer than her performance of “Jenufa,” which we were privileged to hear here in Washington recently in an exciting production.

I also thought that Ilan Volkov and the orchestra were in fine form the night that I went.

Posted by: snaketime | April 3, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

David Engel: Thanks for the nice words. My review of the Kissin recital ran in the paper on March 3. (I must emphasize that I did not write the headline.)

ianw2: I agree with you about Grimes - if this 20th-century opera doesn't reach audiences, what can?

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 3, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I saw Peter Grimes on April 1. I was blown away. It was my second time seeing the opera, and the first time seeing it live in the theater (first time was last season's Met Opera movie theater broadcast, also with Patricia Racette). It's everything I want in an opera, engaging plot, effective, beautiful music, with an English libretto magnificently set so the words can be understood, great choral scenes. The performances were outstanding, the singing terrific by everyone. Christopher Ventris had almost too beautiful a voice for the character, though I didn't mind. I enjoyed the differences with the Met/Anthony Dean Griffey view of the piece and Grimes. In the Met production, I felt that Grimes had done what the gossips thought, and he went out to sea at the end to be finally at peace. In the WNO production, I felt he was innocent, but he was badgered into commiting suicide by the small-minded gossiping, claustrophobic society (loved those leaning-in sets).
In the section of the front orchestra I was in, almost all were there start to finish, and people enthusiastically applauded. My friend who was not fond of the Britten score nevertheless enjoyed the opera for its interesting, engaging, and affecting drama and marvelous performances.

Posted by: c-clef | April 3, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm an opera neophyte, although I've been going both in Boston and DC for a couple of years, and am a subscriber to the WNO. Peter Grimes was completely new to me this week, and I'm glad I saw it, but can't really say I'm a fan. The first act left me cold - the word discordant has been used here, but I found the music simply harsh. The clash of sounds had me thinking more about things didn't fit than how they did or what was going on. The second and especially third acts were what made me glad I was there. Peter as a character I found completely compelling, and Christopher Ventris was great. The music in the third act seemed to come together in a way it had been battling to do all night, and I could sit back in my seat and let the experience wash over me.

Posted by: alexis2000 | April 3, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I know I am getting away from the subject of Peter Grimes, but the production of Enescu's Oedipe from Berlin is the same that was seen in Vienna, from which the Michael Gielen recording comes, and the score is unfortunately cut. When Theatre du Capitole in Toulouse presented it last October, it was complete. And there are rumors of a Paris Opera staging in the future seasons; after all, the new Paris boss, Nicolas Joel, Capitole's still current director.

Back to Grimes: yes, Racette was moving which is why I hope this vibrato goes away.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 3, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I agree with snaketime that WNO should do its own production of Grimes. But the issue that Midgette raises here is much bigger than just who likes Britten and who doesn't, it gets at the fundamental core of audience pleasing and fundraising, in my opinion.

In my not-so-humble-opinion: of all the masterpieces of the 20th century, Peter Grimes has to be one of the most accessible. For all this griping over Britten, I can't imagine the riot that would have started had it been Lulu or or Wozzeck or Moses und Aron. Musically, it's actually quite tonal in lots of places---the interludes, embroidery aria, sections of Grimes' monologue, Ned Keene, etc. There are long stretches of Strauss that are much denser and more dissonant than this, but no one complains about him. Almost every movie for the last fifty years has more dissonant music than this. So what's the real issue?

Is it that it hits too close to home? is it that it makes you think about some things you might not like to, and that it does it in English so you can't funnel it through an even more distanced foreign language? The story isn't any darker than most R-rated movies, yet no one shuns those. God forbid you people have to think for a few hours. Domingo throws us so many bones---Carmen, Traviata, Pearl Fishers, Turandot, Lucrezia Borgia---and then one slight diversion (into Britten at that!) gets your panties in a twist?!

What this really says to me is that more and more people want opera to live in a vaccuum. To stay in this place in time that began with Mozart and ended with Strauss. That place where nothing hits too close to home, where you have the luxury of making whatever connection you want to your own lives instead of having the connection made for you. But a guy that's gay, or a pedophile, or a gay pedophile, and who sings such horrible music? No, no, no that won't do at all.

I the uber-rich out there keep giving big donations and subsidizing opera for the rest of us. But like it or not: this is opera. Opera is not in the past tense, nor is it in the future tense. From Nozze di Figaro to Fidelio to I Lombardi Die Frau Ohne Schatten to Peter Grimes to Doctor Atomic, it has served as a commentary on society in the PRESENT. Deal with it. And don't brush it off as saying you don't like the music. No one buys that. If you don't like it, don't go, but don't feed us the extra helping of BS on the side.

Posted by: geddaisgod | April 3, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Hello Again Anne,

I don't know how I missed that review. Thanks for pointing it out to me. I feel that Kissin's playing represents hundreds years old Russian Piano playing tradition. It is very special.



Posted by: davidengel58 | April 3, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

First of all, what great title for this post! Witty twist on opera's "Grimes- is at his exercise" lines...
Second, thanks for the link to my review. I hope that it hopes to spread the word about this production.
For DC audience, this was indeed a good test, and it is interesting that there the opinions are so polarized. Some people really want opera in incomprehensibly sung foreign language, with long stretches of non-descript music filling the space between few familiar tunes; it should be something like athletic feat with a hint of pretension to high art, so it's best if someone really famous is in it, and they better hit a few high notes and hold them looong. When opera like Grimes comes along and tries to actually engage people on intellectual and emotional level, not everyone will be comfortable with that.
Still, it's great that this one has people talking!

Akimon Azuki

Posted by: akimon | April 3, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Hello, Anne.
Peter Grimes is a challenging opera for audience, orchestra and performers. It's also one of the most rewarding on so many levels. We took our 16 year old son to see a production at Indiana University (we were looking at colleges and by a wonderful coincidence, PG was being performed that weekend). Michael is not an opera fan, so at intermission, I asked him what he thought. Without hesitation, he said, "I like it. It's ambiguous."
PG is one the few operas whose characters are uncomfortably recognizable. It's bleak and there's abuse everywhere, but the work is humanized by a magnificent score that bestows its characters with interior lives. Britten creates an aural seascape with the eerie combinations of high strings and winds, at once ominous and placid, that ambiguity. Perhaps some audiences can't take that. Their loss.
Wish we could see this production (I'm in Cincinnati.)

Posted by: annea1 | April 3, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I think it all depends on what you are looking for in an opera. If you are looking for beauty, run. If you are looking for a challenging score, dark, dismal staging, and a sorrowful, convoluted plot, this opera is for you. Although I adore most opera performances, I found myself having a hard time digesting this one. The staging was morose,and the performance long and boring. Clearly those performing in the opera did it a great service and were superb. I just fear it was the wrong selection for the WNO. Those who like musical challenges may have loved it, but I fear the general opera goer wpould find it abysmal. I enjoy reading your reviews as they add depth to what we hear and look for in a performance, but I fear, in this case, you may have misled the general public with your praise. You probably should have emphasized the operas dreariness, that it is not meant for all, and definitely should not be one's first exposure to opera. The WNO is walking a fine line in this age of fiscal prudence. They should continue to challenge, but also not to depress. Without a doubt my favorite opera this season, a total surprise, was Lucrezia Borgia with Sondra Radvanovsky. Phenomenal! Unfortunately, dark staging continues to be a fashion statement:0(

Posted by: donahuer | April 3, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I love the piece, which I've seen before, and very much enjoyed WNO's performance of it. I'm not sure why it was so unpopular to some, especially relative to other pieces WNO has done recently. For example, I think Britten's "Billy Budd" had a more uniformly positive reception when WNO did it several years ago. That opera isn't quite as unrelentingly grim as "Grimes," but I think its music wasn't any less harsh, on the whole.

I also find the characters in "Grimes" to be sympathetic--and more so than those in "Turandot," for example, which the WNO will do next month. I somehow suspect that the reception of "Turandot" will be more uniform.

Posted by: JohnCD | April 3, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I think your blog is off to a great start, Ms. Midgette.

Tim Page mentioned in a comment the sorry demise of record stores. There are still a few options for classical in our area that deserve mention.

Melody Records on Connecticut Ave north of Dupont Circle has a very respectable collection of classical cds and dvds
(the classical dept. is run by the former manager of Serenade, which Tim mentioned).

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda still has a half-decent classical selection, as does the Borders across from Mazza Gallery (run by the very knowledgable John Niles).

Finally, Second Story Books (off Dupont Circle), which may be temporarily closed, often has an interesting variety of used classical cds.

It isn't just the actual physical browsing I miss when ordering cds from Amazon or Archiv. Tower's classical departments often played interesting things, which led me to discover William Alwyn's symphonies and other somewhat off-the-beaten track music.

Sam Soopper
Chevy Chase, MD

Posted by: geranuk | April 3, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Donahuer--You say that Grimes may have been the wrong selection for WNO. Are you implying that Washington opera audiences only want opera that's beautiful or more traditional? Peter Grimes is hardly the only long opera with a convoluted plot or morose subject matter. A company wouldn't really be doing a service to its audiences if it only programmed Aida, Butterfly, Carmen, etc. I think that the average DC operagoer is very intelligent, educated and sophisticated. And taken as a whole, they're just as likely to appreciate a well-produced, well-sung Puccini opera as they would a Britten opera.

I think that Ms. Midgette's article and her review clearly reflected the intent of the opera and of the production. She told us it's challenging, that some people don't like it, that it's a bit of a downer. If that type of opera is not to one's taste, than one should not buy a ticket...and that's OK. But just because something is not to one's taste, does not mean that a production is bad or not worthy. Just means you don't like it.
And based on the comments on this board and elsewhere, it seems more people liked the Washington Peter Grimes than disliked it.

Posted by: anony2 | April 3, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

While I personally think Peter Grimes is a great opera, and thought that the current production was excellent, I can't really see comparing it to Carmen or Otello.

Those operas are both about Great Passion -- and as you observed, the Grimes/Ellen Orford relationship is about the least passionate in the history of opera. Then there's the matter of child abuse in Grimes, not the most comfortable subject.

As to the score, I was riding high on it for several days after the performance, but let's face it, you don't exactly exit whistling the Habanera.

Still, I suspect a lot of the resistance expressed is due to a lack of familiarity. I don't hear anything in Britten that makes him more difficult than, say, Sondheim. By the same token, if listeners were more familiar with Janacek, they might well learn to love him as much as Puccini.

Sam Soopper
Chevy Chase, MD

Posted by: geranuk | April 3, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

The ensemble singing may have been "muddy" on opening night, but last Sunday matinee, the chorus was utterly brilliant. It was such a pleasure to hear and see so much involvement by the chorus in this excellent production. They brought the whole story to life, creating an ominous sense of threat and dread in their interactions and singing. I must say I am sorry for the correspondent who walked out at the first interval. Not easy music, but it provoked strong feelings in me and the complexities of the rhythms were particularly effective. To walk out meant not experiencing the opera as a whole. Wouldn't have wanted to miss a note.

Posted by: jameswork52 | April 4, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

So Sam, your definition of great opera is the number of tunes that can be sucessfully whistled when you leave? ;) I guess Lulu and Elektra are out. So is Tristan by all reasonable measures. Your second litmus test ("comfortable" topics) makes me raise an eyebrow, too. How are interracial marriage, adultery, and murder somehow less touchy than child abuse?

I don't think great opera has to have great "passionate" (by which you apparently mean amorous) love. I can name several greats that don't---Boris Godunov, Boccanegra, etc. I think what makes opera great is not the amount of love or near-sex that occurs on stage, but how much the characters are developed and how well the music serves that development. Otello is near--if not at--the top of that list. Carmen, I would say, is not---too much happens off stage in between acts. Grimes works very well; both Ellen and Peter are VERY developed, and the important stuff happens right before our eyes. You yourself said the score put you on a high. That's what great opera is all about. Don't confusing "entertaining" with "great."

Posted by: geddaisgod | April 4, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I find that liking or disliking Grimes (or for that matter Britten in general) has very little to do with overall artistic quality or the amount of exposure one has to music, but far more to do with what one's prefers in terms of "dramatic content" in opera.
Being from an area of the country that has very little exposure to opera in general, I spend a lot of time exposing friends and family to opera for the first time. My friends who like "big" drama and who try to really "experience life to the fullest" tend to like things along the line of Puccini and Carmen. Yes, Carmen is dark, but not in the same way that Grimes is dark. Carmen is dark in a soap opera sort of way. Grimes, on the other hand, appeals to my friends who prefer things like Sondheim or Kander and Ebb- it's a more sinister type of darkness. Those friends tends tend to not like opera because they feel it's "frivolous"- well, there's nothing frivolous about Grimes. I think it's just a personality thing... the part that frustrates me is that oftentimes people who have only seen one opera dismiss the genre b/c they had one bad experience. Yet they would never dismiss all of television because they had seen one bad show. Unfortunately, I think because of the overexposure of more "dramatic" shows, we lose a significant portion of our potential audience in hopes to please an audience that is, quite frankly, dying.

Posted by: dagneyandleo | April 4, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

There are limited opportunities to hear contemporary opera in DC. Wonder if there are some recordings you'd recommend for folks dipping their toes into these waters...

Posted by: pancakej | April 6, 2009 12:13 AM | Report abuse

Dear Anne,

I love the blog, a fantastic way to get more insight into some of the local performances!
As for Britten, as hard as I try to like him it just does not work for me! It’s not for lack of trying or keeping an open mind. I’ve seen Billy Budd twice (in Vienna and at WNO), Death in Venice in London at the ENO and now we saw the last performance of Peter Grimes on Saturday. I guess Britten is just not for me. My wife loved the show and so did some of our friends but I find his music so dissonant that it is very difficult for me to enjoy it. But I do not give up easily so I’ll keep going until one day perhaps I’ll “get it”.

Mike Klein, Bethesda

Posted by: Mike-Klein | April 6, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Re: "There are limited opportunities to hear contemporary opera in DC" -- pancakej

I find this an interesting comment, setting aside for the moment issues of how one defines "DC" and "contemporary opera." I also agree that perhaps Alex Ross or Anne Midgette could compile a list of twenty or thirty recommended twentieth and twenty-first century operas, for starters.

The Washington National Opera produces one American or British twentieth [or twenty-first] century opera every year. They have also, recently, given premieres of Nicholas Maw's "Sophie's Choice" and Scott Wheeler's "Democracy". Under earlier leadership, the company supported regional premieres of such important works as Hans Krasa's "Verlobung im Traum" (Betrothal in a Dream).

The University of Maryland, Catholic University, and George Mason U. each produce at least one contemporary opera every season (and Wolf Trap Opera used to do so, and I would guess that Kim Witman and others are working to reverse this latest trend).

Without looking, I recall University of Maryland doing a world premiere recently, Catholic U. doing the world premiere of an Andrew Simpson opera -- based upon a Greek tragedy -- a few seasons back, and George Mason U., I believe, reviving Philip Glass and Allen Ginsburg's "Hydrogen Jukebox" this season.

The Library of Congress will produce a major twentieth century chamber opera in May -- Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine" (semi-staged, with Carole Farley); and such newer and established DC organizations as the Post-Classical Ensemble, the 21st Century Consort, and Arena Stage have all produced smaller 20th and 21st century operas.

Even the National Gallery of Art has committed itself to 21st century American opera, as through its coproduction with the U. of Maryland of John Musto's chamber opera based upon five Edward Hopper's paintings. I think that even the Phillips Collection will be involved in contemporary solo opera if it's current fund-raising campaign for its music commissioning program is successful.

I think a question for you, John, would be why you believe that there are limited opportunities to hear contemporary opera, and if so, what are the roles that the Washington National Opera, the Washington Post, and such entities as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington (and related endowments and foundations) have played in such a perceived paucity of contemporary artistic opportunity.

Alternatively, why do you believe that "DC" has come to be perceived, internationally, as a conservative city most interested in, and supportive of, early music, baroque music, and 18th and 19th century music?

Posted by: snaketime | April 7, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

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