[Met Performance] CID:147180
Peter Grimes {3} Metropolitan Opera House: 02/23/1948.

(Debut: Brian Sullivan

Metropolitan Opera House
February 23, 1948


Peter Grimes............Brian Sullivan [Debut]
Ellen Orford............Polyna Stoska
Captain Balstrode.......Mack Harrell
Mrs. Sedley.............Martha Lipton
Auntie..................Claramae Turner
Niece...................Paula Lenchner
Niece...................Maxine Stellman
Hobson..................Philip Kinsman
Swallow.................Jerome Hines
Bob Boles...............Leslie Chabay
Rev. Horace Adams.......John Garris
Ned Keene...............Hugh Thompson
Lawyer..................Lodovico Oliviero [Last performance]
Fisherwoman.............Thelma Altman
Fisherman...............Lawrence Davidson
Thorp...................Orrin Hill
John....................Peggy Smithers

Conductor...............Emil Cooper

Review of Olin Downes in The New York Times


Sullivan, in Debut, Stoska and Harrell Appear in Britten Work at Metropolitan

It is sometimes regrettable that news requirements make it essential to review the first performance of a new opera off the bat - on immediate contact, for the morning after. Because the second performance is so likely to be better, more secure, more eloquent, and therefore, to do more justice to the composition. Now the first "Peter Grimes" at the Metropolitan was good. The second, last night, was still better.

There were three new principals in leading parts and they did very well. They were Brian Sullivan, who then made his Metropolitan debut, in the title part. Polyna Stoska, the Ellen Orford, and Mack Harrell, Captain Balstrode. But it was in the fluency and authority of this second performance that the greatest difference was made. The chorus was more brilliant. The secondary parts stood out more effectively. The audience listened with courtesy and a reasonable degree of enthusiasm, which, however, was not equal to that of the Metropolitan premiere. The Metropolitan can say that twice in succession "Peter Grimes" has met with the favor of its patrons. For all that, the writer thinks less of this opera every time that he hears it.

This is the impression of last night in spite of the dramatic address and the spirited singing of Mr. Sullivan in a difficult role, the freshness of Miss Stoska's voice and her sincerity in interpretation, and the further fact that Mr. Harrell does all that can readily be done to make the character of the bluff and hearty Balstrode plausible. There is also the mass effect of the chorus singing -- very good, where this particular feature is concerned.

Opera is Artificial

But the opera simply does not ring true. It is artificial in its make-up. The composer knows a great deal and he has a certain style. This is the style - we did not say the music, which is essentially unoriginal - of Benjamin Britten. He is a brilliant technician and orchestrator, but not as yet, in our belief, an opera composer. His choruses come out of Mussorgsky, as does his drunken preacher in the hostelry scene. But, these are really oratorio choruses, of a well-behaved people - people far indeed from the revolting peasants of Mussorgsky. No one believes in this chorus of villagers who go off yelling such a yodel as no English villagers on land or sea ever yodeled, led by a man who loudly whacks a drum, with the ostensible intention of punishing Grimes, in another scene.

The libretto is just as unnatural. The language is not that of the common people of a British seaport, though an unseemly oath or two is tucked in just to show how jolly democratic these characters can be. The prevailing tone of the poetry is very affected and not dramatic, and there isn't a real character in the lot of them. Peter is the central figure, but he, too, is a straw man of tragedy. He has not been born - only invented. He distresses us, but does not arouse sympathy. The other characters are nothing at all.

A Conventional Opera

And this opera is just as conventional as any other. A man draws a knife. Someone cries "For heaven's sake make a song," or words to that effect, and someone jumps on a table and intones an elaborately contrapuntal catch in seven-four time. We have just as soon or sooner have listened to a melting Italian aria in this place, which at least would have furnished a good time. The church chorus is an old cliché done better in a dozen French or Italian operas. The use of the old forms such as the passacaglia between acts is a Bergian device which is too regimented and too deliberately adapted either to keep up dramatic motion or make one feel that there was any reason for the passacaglia than there might have been for a toccata or ricercare. They were old forms too, and just about as unnecessary and inappropriate in a modern opera which professes to unite psychology, realism and symbolical situations.

The solo voice parts are seldom convincing either as emotional song or as melodic declamation. For the prosody is poor, making good diction difficult and sometimes impossible. The orchestral music is the best part of the score, and the sea music the most plausible, skillfully colored and of a scenic flavor. We used to think it more. We feel increasingly doubtful about "Peter Grimes." The public will decide its fate. We doubt, if operatic history will be affected by its coming or its going.

Added Index Entries for Subjects and Names

Back to short citation(s).