[Met Performance] CID:147040

Metropolitan Opera Premiere, New Production

Peter Grimes
Metropolitan Opera House, Thu, February 12, 1948

Peter Grimes (1)
Benjamin Britten | Montagu Slater
Peter Grimes
Frederick Jagel

Ellen Orford
Regina Resnik

Captain Balstrode
John Brownlee

Mrs. Sedley
Martha Lipton

Claramae Turner

Paula Lenchner

Maxine Stellman

Philip Kinsman

Jerome Hines

Bob Boles
Thomas Hayward

Rev. Horace Adams
John Garris

Ned Keene
Hugh Thompson

Lodovico Oliviero

Thelma Altman

Lawrence Davidson

Orrin Hill

Peggy Smithers

Emil Cooper

Dino Yannopoulos

Set Designer
Joseph Novak

Costume Designer
Mary Percy Schenck

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Peter Grimes received six performances this season.

Review 1:

Review of Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune

Success Tactics

Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes," which was added last night to the repertory of our Metropolitan Opera, is a success. It always is. Given in any language, in a house of any size, it always holds the attention of an audience. As given last night "the works," so to speak, which is to say, the full mechanism, musical and scenic, of a mammoth production establishment, it still held the attention.

This is not to minimize the excellences of the present production, which are many, or the care that has gone into it, which is considerable. It is merely to point out that the steam-roller processing that our beloved Met, geared to Wagner, puts any new work through is one of the severest tests known for the strengths of theatrical materials. If Mr. Britten's work came out scarcely in English, vocally loud from beginning to end and decorated in a manner both ugly and hopelessly anachronistic, it also came through the ordeal with its music still alive and its human drama still touching.

Make no mistake about "Peter Grimes." It is varied, interesting and solidly put together. It works. It is not a piece of any unusual flavor or distinction. It adds nothing to the history of the stage or to the history of music. But it is a rattling good repertory melodrama, and if the executant artists, beginning with Emil Cooper who conducted, going on through Frederick Jagel and Regina Resnik, who sang the tenor and soprano leads, to the smallest role in a large cast and even including the chorus, treated the work with no consideration for its special or poetic subject-matter, but rather as disembodied, or "pure," theater, just "wow" material, that is exactly what the composer himself has done, what his score invites and asks for.

There is everything in it to make an opera pleasing and effective. There is a trial scene, a boat, a church (with organ music), a pub (with drinking song for the full ensemble), a storm, a night club seen through a window (with boogie-woogie music off stage and shadow play), a scene of Flagellotion, a mad scene and a death. There are set pieces galore, all different, all musically imaginative and mostly fun. And there are a good half-dozen intermezzos, most of which are musically pretty weak, but expressive all the same.

The musical structure of the opera is simple and efficient. Everything and everybody has a motif, a tune or turn of phrase that identifies. The entire orchestral structure and most of the vocal is pieced together out of these, in the manner of Italian verismo. The harmony is a series of pedal points broadly laid out to hold together the bits-and-pieces motif continuity. There is no pretense of musical development through these motifs, as in Wagner. They are pure identification tags, as in Dwight Fiske. The music is wholly objective and calculated for easy effect. That is why it works.

It works even in spite of its none too happy handling of English vowel quantities. It sacrifices these systematically, in fact, to characteristic melodic turns, as if the composer had counted from the beginning on translation. A good part of the obscurity that was characteristic of last night's diction, in spite of the singers' visible effort to project sung speech, was due to the deliberate, falsity of the prosodic line. Mr. Britten is apparently no more bothered about such niceties than he is by the anachronisms of an almost popishly High-Church service in an English fishing village of 1830 and an American jazz band in the same time and place. He has gone out for theatrical effects, got them, got his success. So did the Metropolitan. And still his opera is not a bore.

Review 2:

Review of Irving Kolodin in the Sun

An Impressive "Peter Grimes" at the Opera.

The Metropolitan took its courage in hand last night and challenged the intricacies of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes," which has had performances in eight countries and half a dozen languages since 1945. For their pains, the performers could remember today a patter of applause after the first act, something more substantial after the second and a respectable salute at the finish. None of this approached a demonstration, however.

Britten's setting of Crabbe's dour tale of the accursed fisherman, whose apprentices suffer a series of fatal accidents and who finally chooses suicide at sea, has many moments of tragic eloquence and some of lyric tenderness. Flow it has, but also a dryness of invention which works against it. The musical speech is quirky with odd leaps, the English text is by no means colloquial and, its "literary" flavor makes the singer's task that much more difficult. Put these qualities within the vast framework of the Metropolitan and you have a knotty problem indeed.

Nevertheless, the experience left with this listener (who was not at all taken by the work as given in its American premiere in Tanglewood in August, 1946) a feeling of profound respect for the musical capacities of Britten and admiration for the industry of performers. Emil Cooper's direction had a decisive grasp of the large outlines of the score, if more than a little roughshod disregard for subtleties. The superb orchestral interludes which hold the work together were technically adroit, but hardly as imaginatively phrased as they can be.

The Grimes of Frederick Jagel was a credit to the intelligence of this singer and his power to create a dramatic image, but the part asks a special kind of high tenor voice which he doesn't have. Regina Resnik's Ellen Orford, thoroughly artistic, was a little soft and comely for the widowed schoolmarm, who seeks to save Grimes from the doom within his character. Some of her quieter moments were beautifully, and a little prettily sung. John Brownlee didn't make enough of Capt. Balstrode's lines intelligible to atone for his lack of vocal power. A better choice for this part might have been Jerome Hines, who did a superb Swallow - vocally potent and cleanly understandable, Martha Lipton as Mrs. Sedley sang well, though looking much younger than the 65 years noted in the text, and Claramae Turner's Auntie, as well as the nieces of Paula Lenchner and Maxine Stellman, were a little conventionally operatic for their unconventional trade. Unquestionably the best work was done by the chorus trained by Kurt Adler, which performed with assurance and fine musicality.

That the performance created as much mood as it did is a tribute to the force of Britten's writing, since the production was channeled into conventional operatic lines by Stage Director Dino Yannopolous and Designer Joseph Novak. The realistic intent of Britten was ill-served by the oversized chorus, the static direction and stylized groupings which might well have been the seaside of Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Nor did it seem reasonable that the "nieces" should have been as coquettish about their ancient profession as they were in Act III. For another detail, the first act was poorly lit, to the detriment of the illusion in Britten's writing.

The sum of the matter is that the Metropolitan has added to its repertory a work of great imaginative power and theatrical force, which is not so musically self-sufficient that it can absorb the liabilities of preparation inherent in this production. The foundation is sound enough, but it requires a good deal more careful architecture for justice to Britten and the personnel involved.

Photographs of Peter Grimes by Louis Mélançon.

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