Despite all the words that are sung in English every day, on every quadrant of the Earth, our language skulks around the edges of opera. Eighteenth-century Londoners believed it self-evident that the finest sung dramas should be unintelligible by design, which is how Handel, a German, came to pen operas in Italian for monoglot British society. Even now, arias in English seem to be a cultural error, like Finnish hip-hop or salsa from Dubai. The current Met season incorporates one opera by an American in Sanskrit (Philip Glass’s Satyagraha), another that mixes English with Chinese (Tan Dun’s The First Emperor), and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, sung in English translation for the benefit of the kids. Only Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the work that brought British opera back to life after World War II, makes an irrefutable case for the language’s singable power and lyrical efficiency. You can pack a lot of sense into a very few English words; set those words to music, and pellets of plain speech bloom. Britten made the title character a taciturn Suffolk fisherman, and also a figure of overpowering eloquence.
The opera opens with the pinched, procedural expressions of a courtroom scene, accompanied by a lawyerly tut-tutting of staccato winds. Grimes’s first words after he is sworn in are blandly factual: “We’d caught a huge catch, too big to sell here.” But the character of the accompaniment changes on these words: Three mournful, murmured string chords, followed by three more, hint at a sadness articulated in music, not by words. What we are told is that a boy was killed—by accident, neglect, or malice. What we hear are the stirrings of tragedy. The tenor Anthony Dean Griffey navigates the straits between utterance and intention with great deftness, making his Peter one of the most textured and subtle characters to dominate the Met’s vast stage in a long time. Griffey is a big man and Grimes an angry one, but instead of size and rage fusing into a simple monster, they fit together in more nuanced ways. The tenor doesn’t so much suppress the character’s violent urges as ingest and absorb them, letting the toxic exhalations of his psyche mingle with the sweet breeze of his voice. Griffey’s Grimes can be dangerous, especially at his most terrifyingly mild.
You would think that a community of fishermen would tolerate a loner, but the nineteenth-century town of Britten’s opera doesn’t know what to make of the brooding Grimes, who returns from the sea bearing his apprentice’s body and, against advice, takes on another boy. He is driven by ambitious fantasy—“fiery visions,” he calls them, in which he will “fish the sea dry,” marry his girl Ellen Orford, and receive his measure of respect. He could easily be an American, and indeed he has much in common with Daniel Plainview, the maniacal oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Both detest vulnerability—their own, most of all—and are possessed by desire and disdain. Plainview erects his castle on a sea of oil, Grimes on an ocean of saltwater. And both Britten’s score for the opera and Jonny Greenwood’s for the movie burrow into the principal character’s troubled brain, letting us hear the buzzing and heaving of their thoughts.
By constructing his character in three dimensions, Griffey subverts the director, John Doyle, who has tried hard to flatten it into two, and sometimes fewer. Peter Grimes is dark, but not as hopeless as Doyle wishes it to be. The music offers intimations of beauty and evidence of tender humanity, and when the opera had its premiere in 1945, it helped to goose Great Britain out of its cultural depression. Britten chose to live in a Suffolk fishing village just like Grimes’s, and the score evokes the coastline’s rugged allure. But Doyle turns a study of victimhood and vengeance into a straightforward parable about the claustrophobia of rural life. Scott Pask’s set, a stifling façade of charcoal-colored clapboard, confines the action to a strip of stage, while Peter Mumford’s grudging lighting and Ann Hould-Ward’s stone-hued costumes complete the funereal effect. You’d have to close your eyes to hear the opera’s vein of vitality. With Donald Runnicles conducting, a gorgeous, shiny sound geysers up from the Met orchestra, and the soprano Patricia Racette, as Ellen, dispenses empathy wrapped in a soft, woolen voice.
Even as Grimes thunders on at the Met, New York City Opera has opened and closed King Arthur, by Henry Purcell, who did in the seventeenth century what Britten did in the twentieth: make the strongest possible case for English-language opera. Or rather, semi-opera: King Arthur was mounted in 1692 as an extravaganza of pageantry, spoken dialogue, dance, song, epic themes, and special effects—and revived with similarly spectacular values in a production conducted by William Christie in Paris in 1995. It’s a piece of outlandish imagination and vivid wit. When Cupid defies the Cold Genius in his gelid dominions, for example, Purcell provides both icy groans and the balm of global warming. But at City Opera, the usually excellent conductor Jane Glover couldn’t quite muster crisp exuberance and made do instead with so-so singing and blithe blandness. Her pit band blunted the buoyant rhythms, and the cast’s slender voices sounded frail in the unfriendly expanse.
But this show was less about the music than about the manic burlesque that Mark Morris put on the stage. Morris jettisoned all the battles, elves, enchanted woods, and any semblance of plot, magnanimously retaining John Dryden’s verse, which he ignored, and Purcell’s score, which hummed nicely along with the teeming choreography. Dancers in beachwear, powdered wigs, and beastie costumes jogged across the stage, pranced winningly around a maypole, reenacted an orgy. Much fun was had by all—except, perhaps for the singing Cold Genius stuffed into a refrigerator, or the chorus, which was relegated to the pit. Morris performed in reverse the distilling operation that Doyle wrought on Grimes: Instead of bleakness, he administered joy, which is just as tedious when taken undiluted.
If you wanted to appreciate just how ductile, agile, expressive, and clear the English language can be on the operatic stage, you could do worse than study the pair of new one-act comedies commissioned and zestfully performed by the New York Festival of Song. John Musto’s Bastianello and William Bolcom’s Lucrezia are based on hoary Italian sources; both have clever librettos by Mark Campbell and scores by composers who understand in their bones how to weld voice, words, and wit. Bastianello is a parable about a man who challenges himself to find a greater bunch of fools than his family, only to discover that he wins the dunderhead prize himself. The humor is broad and the subject slight, but Musto’s lacework music transforms the story into something delicate and bittersweet. Lucrezia is a piece of more polymorphous delights, a wild confection of twirling puns, musical one-liners, and deftly skewered clichés. Campbell has plundered a Machiavelli tale to produce a postfeminist take on the standard cuckolding farce, and Bolcom is even more unscrupulously voracious. He switches styles in mid-syllable, gliding insouciantly from Verdian death throes to heavy-limbed tango, from Mozartian tenderness to lascivious cabaret. Present a composer like Bolcom with a line like the one about the potion that “first leaves a woman weakened, then makes her fecund,” and watch the creative juices start to bubble and foam.
William Bolcom, the composer of Lucrezia, has quite a bit to say about writing operas in English rather than, say, Italian or German. “The main thing is, English is a hill-and-dale language. You emphasize important words, but most importantly you need to deal with the unimportant words and de-stress them, which gives you a bumpier line. People who have written successful opera in English know that. It’s a pretty messy language—there’s an awful lot of diphthongs, fricatives, you have to cut off a note earlier than you might. You can’t do singer-y things and be understood.”
By Benjamin Britten.
The Metropolitan Opera. Through March 24.