"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.”
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.]
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