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The evocative music of Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Courtesy photo

Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” now one of my favorite operas, had to grow on me. The first time I heard the full score I didn’t like it much. I knew the Sea Interludes, the orchestral music played between scenes in the opera and often performed in concerts, evocative, highly listenable, colorful, exciting. But there was something unsettling about the vocal music.

Finally seeing a live performance clinched it. In the title role was Jon Vickers, renowned for his portrayals of Grimes, a rough-cob fisherman shunned by his village. Heather Harper and Thomas Stewart led a supporting cast that included many of the great British singers of the day, Colin Davis conducting, in Royal Opera Covent Garden‘s unforgettable production. We saw it in Los Angeles before the 1984 Olympics. To this day, it is the most completely realized operatic performance I have ever experienced.

The Aspen Music Festival provides a similar opportunity Saturday night when it presents the full opera in a semi-staged concert. Music director Robert Spano leads the Aspen Festival Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and a stellar cast headed by Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes. It figures to be the highlight of the 2013 season.

What put “Grimes” over the top for me was the music. Even having heard and reheard the score, I was stunned at the details and sonorities that popped out in live performance, revealing Britten’s uncanny ability to set a scene, define a character and make us feel what was happening with purely musical means.

Britten wrote different in different styles for the major characters in the story, and not just the ones listed in the cast. The sea is an important character, pervading everything. Individuals in the borough are defined deftly by their musical gestures, then coalesce with the chorus into something bigger. This music is, for the most part, highly accessible, bristling with parallel thirds and sixths, consonant.

That is, until they get riled up. When a storm blows in, the music becomes mighty. When the people rise up against Grimes, they become terrifying.

Grimes’ music is another matter. It never seems to fit with the others’, not melodically, not rhythmically and certainly not harmonically. This creates unsettling dissonances. It’s a minor portion of the score, but those passages can be hard to embrace until it becomes obvious that Britten is simply portraying musically how different and difficult Grimes is.

Many of Grimes’ utterances begin with a skip of a minor ninth, one octave plus a half-step. It sounds out of kilter, but it also is instantly recognizable when it shows up in reference to Grimes. In Ellen’s heart-rending “Embroidery Aria,” that wide interval occurs in her music at the very point where she realizes a sweater she embroidered is evidence that Grimes is responsible for the death of a second apprentice.

The musical material for the Sea Interludes is cut from the same cloth as the music in these dramatic scenes. The purely orchestral interludes develop these melodies and harmonies in familiar ways, almost like a symphony. It’s more welcoming that the same music’s more tersely presented appearances In a dramatic scene, where it’s tailored to propel the story.

Britten gets to the heart of it in the first few measures of the prologue, an inquest into the death of Grimes’ apprentice. As he is sworn in, Grimes repeats the oath in a totally different tempo. After the inquest finds the boy died accidentally, Grimes is left alone with Ellen Orford, the schoolteacher he wants to marry if he can only make a big strike fishing. Singing a capella, Ellen tries to comfort him to a soothing musical line, but Grimes is singing in a distant key.

The scene segues seamlessly into the first interlude, a wonderful musical evocation of dawn in the village. The rise and fall of the harmonies and simple melodic lines not only describe the sea they define the borough as a tight-knit society. A storm approaches, carried along by some of the most vivid storm music in all of opera. The villagers take refuge in a pub, the storm music bursting out in the orchestra every time the door opens.

When Grimes enters, it’s like he’s on a different planet. He sings a poetic soliloquy, “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” and the chorus can only respond, “He’s mad or drunk.” Later in the scene, the villagers start a jaunty shanty as a round, “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing.” Grimes tries to join in, but he’s in a different tempo, a different key.

The tremendous range of musical styles in that one scene is only the beginning. This is a score with tuneful duets, trios and ensembles, resonant church music, a series of faux dances, a chorus stirred up into a mob, and a final soliloquy for Grimes in which he drifts in and out of sanity. And those magnificent Sea Interludes. The music at the end mirrors the music of Scene 1. Another day has dawned. Has the borough changed?

It’s all there in the music.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about Aspen Music Festival concerts for 19 years.


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