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Subject: Re: Peter Grimes
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 2 Mar 2018 18:03:49 -0800
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I remember an article on one of the major opera magazines (it might have been the English “Opera”) that represented a bit of a panel discussion on the opera and its roles, in which Jon Vickers and Josephine Barstow participated.

Barstow made the comment that eventually Ellen also “sells out” which surprised me, but which reflect’s Kiwi’s perception.

There is some complexity to the libretto in that two different sources are effectively fused together. There’s the story of Peter Grimes as portrayed in George Crabbe’s verses “The Borough” and then there’s the very different character of Peter Grimes as portrayed in Slater’s libretto to the opera. No question about it: the Peter Grimes in Crabbe’s verses is an awful creature. However, Vickers was convinced that the portrayal in the opera was not that of Crabbe’s Grimes but rather of Crabbe himself. Not a bad person, but an isolationist, eccentric and always “apart from” the people in his surroundings.

Grimes and Ellen are doomed, I think, from the get-go. Grimes is fundamentally unable to “connect” at an intimate level with anyone. This is his tragic flaw. That causes him to always be the outsider and therefore the easy target of suspicion: people who we think are strange and separate from “our people” are the ones in whom we can easily see the worst and suspect the worst motivations. That’s what happens between Grimes and the town: if there’s a good and a bad way to interpret his thoughts and actions, the town gravitates to the bad.

It is dark and it is depressing. It’s also all too real. Anyone who has spent time working in a corporate environment (particularly at the upper levels) sees things like this happen all the time. If someone has a stumble, it’s all too easy for everyone to pile on top of him/her and isolate them.

When Vickers came to San Francisco to sing Siegmund and Peter Grimes in 1976, he met with a group of students (I was one of them) and talked about the opera (in fact, both operas). This was a Vickers so different from the stern, homophobic person I read about that I’ve never been able to reconcile myself to those written accounts since. With my quotes, I’m paraphrasing as closely as I can remember.

Someone brought up the issue of Grimes and homosexuality and asked if that wasn’t the real reason for his isolation from the rest of the borough. Vickers said “that may be what Ben (Britten) had in mind, but the work he and Monty (Slater) produced goes so far beyond that specific and lays out a universal truth of the human condition. Some people just can’t fit in. But everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.” He didn’t deprecate gay people at all, but simply said there are many other reasons people can feel that kind of isolation.

He found the actual singing of Grimes much more difficult than Siegmund. His comment was “If you’re a genuine dramatic tenor, then Siegmund is a cakewalk vocally. If you’re not, it’s a real struggle, but then you probably shouldn’t be singing it.”

Max Paley

> On Mar 2, 2018, at 5:09 PM, Kiwi <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> 
> She tells Peter that their dreams have failed.
> 
> Yes, in the 'Broidery' aria she is somewhat ambiguous but when the town folk threaten to turn on her, she turns on Peter and in a way all is blamed on women needing to comfort men (gross compression).
> 
> When Balstrode tells Peter to kill himself, Ellen is not happy but makes no effort to stop it.
> 
> In a way, Ellen's only future in that borough is to turn from Peter, since it comes down to a him versus them thing.  One of the biggest tragedies is that the two people who most supported Peter against the town were the two who ultimately sent him to die.
> 
> As I said, some of the music is fabulous and the use of the chorus to represent to opposing side (the borough) was brilliant.  But when even the better angels in the society become blind to humanity, when the outsider / other is sent to his death...well, I understand opera can be tragic (I talked with someone after the performance and he didn't see anything different in substance between PG and Tosca) but I think the bleakness and inhumanity of PG, along with what I consider to be an uneven libretto with passages that don't really move the story forward, it's a tough opera to embrace.
> 
> [I was told that half the audience left on opening night.  We lost only a few people the night I was there but the audience also had quite a few children in attendance, some quite young, and I have to wonder if this is a really good opera to take a child to?)
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> 
> -----Original Message----- From: Jon Goldberg
> Sent: Friday, March 02, 2018 7:21 PM
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: Re: Peter Grimes
> 
> Ellen never turns away from Peter. Even after he hits her. Even after she sadly realizes (in
> the achingly beautiful "Broidery" Aria) that he may well be guilty. And she is even
> shocked when Balstrode tells Peter (albeit compassionately) that his only choice at the
> end is to sink himself.
> 
> Despite its tragic elements, the opera does have a great deal of humor - both in the
> music and the situations. And if you say that Ellen and Peter's romance is "doomed from
> the start," well I think one can say that about a huge number of operatic couples.
> 
> Interesting that 3 of my favorite moments in the score are a-cappella (or virtually so).
> The first duet between Peter and Ellen at the end of the courthouse Prologue (where they
> are actually singing in different keys against each other, though those trade-off phrases
> are closely related enharmonically), Peter's final "mad scene" accompanied only by the a-
> capella offstage chorus and the foghorn - and, always one of the most goosebump-
> inducing spots in the score forme - the huge choral shouts of "Peter Grimes! Grimes!
> Grimes!" as they go off to search for him before that mad scene. Musical drama at its
> most intense.
> 
> To me, Grimes is a masterwork, from beginning to end. But Kiwi, not everyone can like
> everything, of course, so if you didn't care for it, that's your valid reaction. Maybe if you
> get another chance with it, you'll find more to like. ;-)
> 
> 
> 
> On Fri, 2 Mar 2018 18:14:20 -0500, Kiwi <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> 
>> Just saw Peter Grimes and must say I have mixed feelings about it.
>> 
>> The staging / directing was simple, direct, and appropriate, the acting committed and
> the singing was fine. From a general perspective, everything fell into place and the piece
> was, I think, well presented.
>> 
>> But.....
>> 
>> I don’t know if I liked it.  The composition itself had moments of stirring intensity
> and was certainly evocative, but I also found parts that grated.
>> 
>> My companion and I both found the libretto awkward at moments and somewhat
> rambling, uneven, and unbalanced.
>> 
>> And finally—and of course, this is a personal thing—I hated that Peter never had a
> chance, that even the idea that he and Ellen had a future together was doomed.  From
> start to finish, it has to be the most unforgivingly tragic-laden opera I’ve experienced,
> really a condemnation of society writ large without a single saving grace, since in the end
> even Ellen turned away from Peter.
>> 
>> I guess I loved some of the music, disliked the story construction, and hated the
> bleakness.
>> 
>> What did I miss?
>> 
>> 
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