Arts & Events

MUSIC REVIEWS: Ojai North Music Festival at Hertz Hall and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday July 03, 2014 - 01:24:00 PM

Kicking off the 2014 Ojai North Music Festival on Thursday, June 19, was a comic opera by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky entitled The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). According to Denk, Music Director of Ojai North and librettist for this comic opera, the idea of making an opera out of Charles Rosen’s erudite book The Classical Style originally came to him as a joke. Denk, who had just spent an evening with Rosen, who was both a gifted pianist and a formidable musicologist, thought it might be hilariously entertaining to poke a bit of affectionate fun at Rosen’s learned musicological analysis of the so-called “classical style” of composers Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.  

The resulting comic opera, with a libretto by Denk and a pastiche musical score by Steven Stucky, and with the Knights orchestra conducted by Robert Spano, turned out to be a real hoot. Directed by Mary Birnbaum, The Classical Style opens in Heaven, where the bored Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven play Scrabble to pass the time. Throughout the opening scene, Haydn, sung by tenor Dominic Armstrong, is avuncular; Beethoven, sung by bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam, is sententious; and Mozart, sung in a trousers role by diminutive soprano Janet Zetlan, is scatological. Mozart also reads aloud a letter he is writing to the producers of the film Amadeus asking for 25% of the film’s gross receipts. He also complains of having to hear over and over Emperor Joseph’s remark, “Too many notes,” at which point Mozart launches into outrageous coloratura roulades on the word ‘notes’. 

This is only the first of this opera’s many musical jokes. When the big 3 classical composers complain that they’ve become caricatures of themselves and long for the days when they were truly great, Haydn comes up with the idea of seeking out Charles Rosen in the hope that the author of the book The Classical Style might clarify what made them great and perhaps enable them to regain some of their former glory. Lights dim; and Charles Rosen appears, sung by bass-baritone Kim Josephson. A music student reminds Rosen he’s expected at a symposium; but Rosen instead launches into an arioso on the birth of the classical style, set to musical snatches from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.  

The next scene takes place in a bar, where a bartender, sung by tenor Dominic Armstrong, serves drinks to characters named Dominant, Tonic, and Sub-dominant – three principal elements of western music. Dominant, sung by mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway, complains that she feels somehow incomplete and seeks resolution. Tonic, a true narcissist sung by bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, struts about and sings only of “me, me, me.” Subdominant, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, slinks about sexily and brags of her power to reconcile op-posites. This banter among musical elements is both humorous and insightful, for it highlights – by humanizing them – the roles these elements play in classical music’s overall structure. Together, they tell us, they form what Charles Rosen calls “a circle of fifths.” 

At this point, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven enter the bar looking for Charles Rosen. However, Mozart takes one look at the curvaceous Subdominant, practically sticking his nose down her cleavage, and propositions her. There is a blackout; and when the lights come up Charles Rosen delivers a brief lecture on Mozart as the most sinful and shockingly voluptuous of all composers. In a quick turnabout, characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni rush in, accompanied by music from that opera’s opening scene. Donna Anna pursues Don Giovanni and calls for help from her father, the Commendatore. Instead of this latter, in comes a musicology Ph.D. student, Henry Snibblesworth, sung by tenor Keith Jameson, who delivers an erudite but totally beside-the-point lecture about melodic style. His discourse has the un-expected result of dampening the sexual ardor of Don Giovanni, suddenly become impotent. When Donna Anna’s father finally enters, the Commendatore, portrayed by bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam, sings a hilarious Catalog aria to the tune of Leporello’s famous catalog aria. Here the Commendatore totes up statistics re-vealing the worldwide music industry’s prodigious exploitation of the great classical composers. 

It’s all huge fun; and it gets even funnier a bit later, when a character named The Tristan Chord enters with a patch over one eye (shades of Wotan, the Wanderer) and wearing a trench-coat. To the sound of Wagner’s famous Tristan chord, this eponymous character, sung by Kim Josephson, laments that he wanders the world homeless and unmoored. In one of this opera’s most telling lines, he sings, “Since by ambiguity I rule, by ambiguity I am ruled: Freest of all chords, I am a slave.” 

In spite – or because -- of all the fun poked at musicological analysis in this opera, there are many insightful points made here. In writing this review, I have only touched on some of the best – and funniest – of the insights this opera puts forth. Suffice it to say that librettist Jeremy Denk and composer Steven Stucky have created in The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) a most entertaining and inform-ative postmodern self-referential opera. 


Britten’s Peter Grimes: 

Over the weekend of Gay Pride, June 26-9,2014, the San Francisco Symphony presented three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s first – and perhaps greatest – opera success, Peter Grimes. These performances by the Symphony, fol-lowing two earlier concerts of Britten’s music, belatedly marked the end of the centennial celebration of Britten’s birth in 1913. Benjamin Britten entered London’s Royal College of Music at age 17. On completion of his studies, Britten worked as a composer in England’s prestigious General Post Office Film Unit, writing scores for numerous documentary films. The GPO Film Unit was a hotbed of left-wing pacifists that included W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Montagu Slater; and some were openly gay. In 1937, Britten, then 24, met the young tenor Peter Pears, who became Britten’s lifelong partner. 

The subject matter of Britten’s Peter Grimes had its source in a lengthy poem, “The Borough,” by English poet George Crabbe (1754-1832). The opera’s story, as written by librettist Montagu Slater, tells of an East Anglian fisherman, Peter Grimes, who takes on pauper boys as apprentices, works them overly hard, and becomes personally haunted – and hated by the locals – when three successive apprentices die in suspicious circumstances, two at sea and the third by falling off a cliff when ordered by Grimes to report for work. For this tragic tale, Britten wrote music of overwhelming power, mixing moments of harsh dissonance (the “Storm”), lyrical passages (Ellen Orford’s soliloquy in the first scene), salty sea-chanteys, and complex polyrhythmic choruses (the pub scene at “The “Boar” in Act II). In Peter Grimes, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 1945 with Peter Pears as Grimes, Britten established himself as a master of many different musical styles, at once both modern and traditional. 

For the San Francisco Symphony performances of Peter Grimes, Music Director/Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas assembled a large and excellent cast of singers; a large chorus under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin; a substantial orchestra augmented by a xylophone, a celeseta, and an organ; and video projections designed by Adam Larsen. These latter consist of stark black-and-gray images of the sea and the seaside village. Sometimes, the audience has the impression it is viewing the village as if from a fishing boat offshore. 

As Peter Grimes begins, lawyer Mr. Swallow, sung here by baritone John Relyea, questions Grimes about his recent apprentice’s mysterious death at sea. Coming after the previous death of an apprentice, the villagers are gossiping that Grimes is a murderer. But Swallow, forcefully sung by John Relyea, chides the villagers for putting too much stake in gossip and declares that this must be considered an accidental death. This does not satisfy the villagers: They smell blood and they want Grimes to pay.  

In the role of Peter Grimes, Australian tenor Stuart Skelton gave a robust per-formance, his husky voice rising and falling like the tides of the sea. Skelton por-trayed Grimes as an obsessive-compulsive individual, aware of his position as an outsider in society, yet driven to make good by hauling in a large catch of fish and thereby ‘buying’ the respect he so craves from his fellow villagers. However, in the course of this opera, Grimes’s obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes almost psychopathic; and questions about him linger throughout – and even after – the opera. 

As the widow Ellen Orford, Elza van den Heever, a former San Francisco Opera Merola and Adler Fellow, gave a very fine performance, her lilting soprano expressing her stable conviction that Peter Grimes is innocent of the crimes the villagers suspect him of committing. Yet when Ellen discovers in Act II the bruises on the neck of the third of Peter’s apprentices, Elza van den Heever renders a lyrical outpouring of pain at the discovery that Ellen’s faith in Peter (and her hopes to marry him) may be misplaced. In Ellen’s Act III “Embroidery” duet with retired Sea Captain Balstrode (sung here by baritone Alan Opie), Elza van den Heever gave voice to wistful resignation in the face of certain tragedy, yet joined with Balstrode in vowing to stick with Grimes to the bitter end.  

Very few villagers aside from Ellen and Balstrode, give Grimes any sympathy. Only Ned Keene, sung here by baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, occasionally chimes in to support Grimes. Meanwhile, Rev. Horace Adams, sung here by tenor Kim Begley, hurls imprecations at Grimes while brandishing aloft the Bible. Mrs. Sedley, sung here by mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, is a laudanum-addicted gossip-monger who wants Grimes’s hide. Tenor Richard Cox sings the role of the ever-drunk Bob Boles; and bass Kevin Langan sings the role of Hobson, the carter, who washes his hands of the affairs of the villagers. Likewise, “Auntie,” the local pub-keeper, sung here by mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, wants only to offer her pub, “The Boar,” as a place for the villagers to forget their cares by drowning them in drink. She also hopes to find suitable husbands for her young nieces, sung here by soprano Nikki Enfield and mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims. In Act II, Auntie and her nieces, together with Ellen Orford, sing a lovely lyrical quartet in which they express that when menfolk rail and rage, women offer them motherly nurture and a place of peace and calm. 

Meanwhile, Grimes has trouble getting his new young apprentice, who seems fearful of being hurt further by his sometimes brutal master, to report for sea-duty. Finally, a worked-up Grimes practically shoves his apprentice down a steep path that leads to a cove where their boat is beached. Violence is in the air; and only a few steps further the apprentice stumbles and plunges off the cliff to his death. Grimes, now thoroughly deranged, searches in vain for the boy’s body. Then, aware of what the villagers will think, he staggers towards home. When Balstrode encounters Grimes, the sympathetic retired sea-captain senses how utterly distraught and deranged Grimes has become. In a conversation overheard by Ellen, Balstrode advises Grimes to sink himself and his boat at sea rather than face the angry villagers. Grimes apparently heeds Balstrode’s advice, for a boat is reportedly seen sinking offshore. However, a question remains: By this end-point in the opera, are Balstrode and Ellen more than a little suspicious that Grimes may well be guilty, or do they simply understand that Grimes has endured far too many blows from a cruel fate to face up yet again to the angry mob of villagers? 

Throughout Peter Grimes, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony navigated quite brilliantly Britten’s ebbing and flowing musical score. Likewise, the Symphony Chorus under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin made vital contributions to this opera’s portrayal of gossiping and angry village mobs. Stage and Costume Director James Darrah made good use of the ramped stage, and he was especially astute in his decision, towards the end of Act III, to have singers and chorus members sometimes enter and exit the stage through the audience, thereby implicating us all as villagers standing in judgment of Peter Grimes. Finally, credit is due Scenic and Lighting Designer Cameron Jaye Mock for helping video artist Adam Larsen create a visual ambience of an East Anglian seaside village. For Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes was an intensely personal work. As a homosexual in an era far less accepting of homosexuality than today, Britten was well aware of what it meant to be a social outcast about whom straight people might suspect all sorts of things, including abuse of young boys. Yet Britten once ex-pressed himself thusly about the character of Peter Grimes: “Grimes represents man against a narrow society,” explained Britten. “He is a little different; he has a little more imagination. You have to sense his pride and his helplessness.” Perhaps by performing Britten’s Peter Grimes on the weekend celebrating Gay Pride, Music Director/Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, himself a gay man, sought not only to celebrate Benjamin Britten, but also to inspire in all of us a bit of empathy towards individuals who are, as Britten wrote, “a little different.”