[Met Performance] CID:209190
New production
Peter Grimes {13} Metropolitan Opera House: 01/20/1967.

(Debuts: Guy Curtis, Madelyn Coppock, Colin Davis, Tanya
Moiseiwitsch
Reviews)


Metropolitan Opera House
January 20, 1967
New production


PETER GRIMES {13}
Britten-Slater

Peter Grimes............Jon Vickers
Ellen Orford............Lucine Amara
Captain Balstrode.......Geraint Evans
Mrs. Sedley.............Jean Madeira
Auntie..................Lili Chookasian
Niece...................Mary Ellen Pracht
Niece...................Lilian Sukis
Hobson..................Norman Scott
Swallow.................Raymond Michalski
Bob Boles...............Paul Franke
Rev. Horace Adams.......Robert Schmorr
Ned Keene...............Gene Boucher
Lawyer..................William Mellow
Fisherwoman.............Madelyn Coppock [Debut]
Fisherman...............Edward Ghazal
John....................Guy Curtis [Debut]

Conductor...............Colin Davis [Debut]

Production..............Tyrone Guthrie
Designer................Tanya Moiseiwitsch [Debut]

Production a gift of Mrs. Edgar Tobin

Peter Grimes received six performances this season.

Review of Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review of Literature


For an example of musical theater at close to its contemporary best, the reader is directed to the new production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" at the Metropolitan. The dies that Rudolf Bing has cast in the customary gamble that goes into such a venture have, this time, all come up "natural' (in more than the sporting sense). By combining Colin Davis as conductor and Tanya Moiseiwitsch as designer, in their Metropolitan debuts, with Tyrone Guthrie as director, he has affiliated three English talents in the solution of a problem quintessentially English.

Between them, Davis, who had a superb success in his first Metropolitan venture, and Miss Moiseiwitsch, who fared nearly as well, could probably have brought off a result of high justice to the audio-visual requirements of Britten's score. But it was the resolutely resourceful, invariably solid intercession of Guthrie that put the emphasis specifically on the "theater" side of the equation. He gave a sample of what he was capable of, operatically, in some aspects of the fine "Carmen" and the less fine "Traviata" he did in the old Met. In each, however, he encountered resistances that made him resolve not to challenge again what he called "those high-C characters."

What prompted him to reconsider may very well have been that "Grimes" is devoted to characters of the high seas, those hard-bitten, time-tested, fate-challenged men who take to the boats daily (not always with an assurance of returning). The poem of George Crabbe, dating from the end of the eighteenth century, is poignantly realistic; and the libretto Montagu Slater elaborated from it is equally true to their lives and destinies. Thus Guthrie's abilities are as fully and fruitfully engaged as they have been on those numerous occasions, in dealing with plays ranging from Shakespeare to Shaw, which have established him as a dominant figure of the English-speaking theater.

He has, additionally, brought to bear something not quite within his grasp in "Carmen" and "Traviata": awareness that there are special problems to deal with in converting singers who are also acting into actors who are also singing. The order of priorities is difficult, perhaps impossible, to determine; but Guthrie now understands the warring tendencies sufficiently either to bend to them or to work around them.

In "Grimes" he has established a workable relationship by making a foundation and supporting structure of the chorus, who comprise the people of "The Borough." They are, after all, the eternal ones, who greet the new day when the opera proper begins (after the prologue devoted to the trial of Grimes) and, again, greet another dawning day as the opera ends in the aftermath of his suicide at sea. This is as sound theatrically as it is poetically, for the chorus will go on, inexorably, as principals come and go. Thus to make them act and react as fisherfolk (within Miss Moiseiwitsch's atmospheric decor) is to ensure a permanently valid portion of the whole. Guthrie has not yet broken down the operatic convention which decrees that each voice group (tenors, baritones, sopranos, mezzos) must be segregated from every other voice group. But, at least, he has coached them all to be convincingly uncomprehending when circumstances so decree, or to convey a physically violent, natural reaction to a storm of gale force.

Such credibility alone establishes this "Grimes" as a vast advance on the production that introduced it to New York twenty years ago. Guthrie has proceeded from the general to the specific to evolve a series of character studies far more suitable to Britten's requirements than their predecessors. Outstanding among them is on Vickers, whose Grimes is not merely a career peak for this enormously gifted, sometimes contrary, individual, but very likely the best embodiment of the part that the stage has yet known.

Possessed of both the physique and the vocal stamina for the part, Vickers has been formed by Guthrie into a powerful embodiment of the drives and the uncertainties, the inner tensions and, occasionally, the outer releases, of a fate-driven personality. Controlled this time were the lunges and purely muscular manifestations that Vickers has relied upon in even the best of his prior impersonations. Whether the credit is wholly Guthrie's, or partially Davis's, or mainly Vickers's, the end result is something of a rarity on the operatic stage: a virtuoso performance of a far from simple vocal task combined with a powerful involvement in the human condition that spells his life or death.

Affiliated with this centrifugal force are a series of equally valid embodiments of the other male roles-Geraint Evans as a properly stumpy, yet understanding, Balstrode; Raymond Michalski as a suitably self-important Swallow (the lawyer); Robert Schmorr as the pastor; Norman Scott as a particularly engaged interpreter of the carter, Hobson; Gene Boucher as the pharmacist, Ned Keene; and the others down the line (save Paul Franke, whose Bob Boles showed an incrustation of operatic barnacles beyond even the power of Guthrie to cut away).

His influence on the female performers depended, to an extent, on their receptivity. Jean Madeira, for example, has done nothing finer than her impersonation of Mrs. Sedley, the laudanum addict, to whom "crime" is an obsession, and Lilian Sukis and Mary Ellen Pracht were lively likenesses of the "nieces" who ply the world's second oldest profession in "The Boar," as was Lili Chookasian as their "aunt." On the other hand, Lucine Amara's Ellen Orford was not merely a gamble gone wrong: it was, for the most part, a limp suggestion of the strong counterforce this character should exert against the self-destruction implicit in Grimes. Whether a vocal indisposition (not entered officially but mentioned unofficially) was responsible for some of the odd-sounding, under-produced tones that were heard is arguable; but character projection was absent in the requisite degree.

What Guthrie did not do and what is, perhaps, beyond the capacity of any single individual to do, was to break the language barrier between the stage and the auditorium. Slater's somewhat stilted, archaic English bears its share of blame, but English remains the least intelligible of all the operatic languages, save from such a "foreigner" as Evans, who is, after all, Welsh. Madeira was next best, and Amara least good, with Chookasian very little better, Vickers off and on.

For so much to be said about the production of a contemporary work without discussing its musical quality may seem an evasion, but it is, rather, an affirmation of the status "Grimes" has won in its two decades. Whether New York "likes" it or not (and the reaction of an average Friday-night subscription gathering was decidedly self-contained), "Grimes" is a work with the smell and sound of the surroundings in it, redolent with the power of expression to command and hold the attention, superbly varied in its instrumental-vocal, solo-ensemble values.

So long as Davis is present to direct the aural traffic and Guthrie's influence prevails on the action, "Grimes" is exhibit B (for Britten) in the Metropolitan's gallery of contemporania. The management should persist with it, come empty seats or high water.


Review of Peter Davis in the Times of London (dispatch of 1/16/67)

MET'S SPLENDID NEW 'PETER GRIMES'

With its splendid new production of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes," the Metropolitan Opera expiated a sin of nearly 20 years' standing. When the Met first staged the opera in February 1948, nothing seemed right: despite unanimous approval of the work, critics deplored virtually every aspect of the production and "Peter Grimes" was quietly dropped from the repertoire after two seasons. Now with Sir Tyrone Guthrie's brilliant staging and Tanya Moiseiwitsch's effective sets and costumes, one hopes that "Peter Grimes" will be on hand for many years to come.

Both Sir Tyrone and Miss Moiseiwitsch have presented the opera as a clash between the community and its environment, between the all-too-human fishing folk of The Borough and the angry, capricious, yet life-giving sea. Peter Grimes is ground betwen these two elemental forces as carelessly and relentlessly as a piece of chaff. In Miss Moiseiwitch's stark, weatherbeaten, unromantic sets we read The Borough's desperate daily struggle for existence: In Sir Tyrone's flowing, inventive direction we watch Grimes's tragedy unfold with a frightening inevitability. All told, the Met's "Peter Grimes" offers one of the most gripping theatrical experiences to be seen on any operatic stage today.

Jon Vickers' Peter Grimes may well be the finest piece of work to date from this excellent artist. His total identification with the role, the crackling intensity which accompanied his every appearance on stage, the lovely quality of his voice - it all made a very special impact. To single out just one memorable scene: towards the end of Act I, Grimes bursts into Auntie's pub looking for his new apprentice; he sings his visionary "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" before the astonished crowd, with the storm raging outside and the flickering fire casting crazy shadows on the pub walls. Britten's moving music, the poignancy of the aria's final line "Who can turn skies back and begin again?", Guthrie's superb stage picture, and the unearthly beauty of Vickers's singing crated one of those rare moments that opera-goers dream about but very seldom experience. No less stirring was the haunting "Mad" Scene, culminating with Grimes's heartbreaking melismatic repetitions of his own name.

The supporting cast was, on the whole, a fine one, especially Geraint Evans - a strong, likeable Captain Balstrode - and Lili Chookasian as the earthly Auntie. Unfortunately Lucine Amara made an extremely lack-lustre Ellen Orford; perhaps when she settles more into the role her singing will become more expressive, less throaty, and more clearly focused. There was one other flaw in Jean Madiera's outrageously overacted Mrs. Sedley.

On the podium Colin Davis conducted his first opera at the Met. If he missed some of the taut rhythmic buoyancy that Britten himself brings to the score, Mr. Davis had the orchestra singing with a vibrancy that even the composer might envy. Orchestral balances did not always seem correct, but this will surely right itself in later performances. In general musical excellence Mr. Davis gained high marks - clearly he is a valuable man to have around the opera house, and we hope we will see him often at the Met.



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