By Robert Commanday
NEW YORK – When the music and its making are fine enough, a decent imagination can fill in for a million-dollar staged opera production. Just give the conductor David Robertson a place for his forces to stand and deliver.
That sufficed on Nov. 22 when Robertson, his splendid St. Louis Symphony and Chorus, and a grand cast of soloists made the most of the Carnegie Hall acoustics. It was more than enough to bring Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes to vivid and dramatic life.
For 68 years now, the work has well withstood the test of time, a 20th-century opera that lives on. The tale of the driven loner, the moody fisherman, scorned by the townspeople, carries its sorrowful message deeply. This time, the central impelling force was the outstanding American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, Grimes incarnate. His voice rang clear and true, tone colored with a mouth and mask resonance that echoed that of the earlier great Grimes, Jon Vickers. A hulk of a man, Griffey embodied the workman’s physicality, constantly keeping his arms out from his sides.
Griffey’s voice soared like a seabird in “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” the visionary aria that mystified and frightened the townsfolk during the storm scene. It was charged with mad elation in his ultimate big scene, “Look! Now is our chance!,” as he readies the doomed boy to go out to sea. And it was demented as he challenged the approaching mob, and finally, as he anticipated his watery suicide, “Steady… Water will drink my sorrows dry.”
The nemesis and the second principal were the townspeople, represented by Amy Kaiser’s top-notch St. Louis Symphony Chorus of well over 100 voices, seated in mixed quartets. Britten’s choral writing here is mostly simple, direct, and harmonic, with large stretches in unisons that project a telling depth when sung by so many. The storm scene morale-booster, “Old Joe has gone fishing,” worked its powerful way, lurching like a drunkard in 7/4 time. It was striking to have half the chorus sing from the auditorium rear instead of offstage, portraying the church choir heard accompanying Ellen Orford’s aria to Grimes’ little boy apprentice, opening the Sunday morning scene.
Ellen, the schoolteacher and Grimes’ intended, was sung beautifully by the tall, handsome soprano Susanna Phillips, voice smooth and rich, arresting in sympathy in that morning aria “Glitter of waves and glitter of sunlight.” Finally, her rendering of “Embroidery in childhood,” after her fateful discovery of the boy’s sweater, was very moving.
As the third principal figure, Captain Balstrode, a sympathetic and helpful friend to Grimes, boasted a veteran in the role, bass-baritone Alan Held. Though strong vocally and as a presence, he was mostly lacking in warmth. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the lawyer Swallow, baritone Liam Bonner as the apothecary Ned Keene, bass-baritone David Pittsinger as the carter Hobson, tenor Keith Boyer as the rector Horace Adams, and especially tenor Thomas Cooley as the rabble-rousing Bob Boles were the face of the mob. Contralto Meredith Arwady, who was the stellar Dame Quickly in the San Francisco Opera’s recent Falstaff, was again big and marvelous as Auntie, madam of the tavern and brothel, with her two “nieces,” Leela Subramaniam and Summer Hassan, in tow. The witchy town snoop and snitch, Mrs. Sedley, was done well by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby.
Robertson led the forces of his St. Louis Symphony brilliantly, achieving utter clarity in a first-class, recording-ready performance of this translucent score. It was impressive – a sweep!
Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was The San Francisco Chronicle’s Music Critic from 1965-93 and previously conductor and lecturer at the University of California – Berkeley.