Great Britten

Gray Russian: James Morris in the title role, left, and David Kuebler in Boris Godunov.Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

When The London Symphony decided to lead off its recent New York visit to Avery Fisher Hall with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, many concertgoers may have wondered why such a relatively familiar opera needed to be heard in concert. After all, the work entered the Metropolitan’s repertory as long ago as 1948, just three years after its world premiere in London, and these days recordings and videos are plentiful. By the time the last notes had faded away, though, and Sir Colin Davis had put down his baton, the reasons were crystal clear. I don’t think I have ever heard a more thrilling account of this twentieth-century masterpiece, or a performance that brought the score’s inventive richness and dramatic energy into sharper focus. Sometimes, being able to concentrate fully on an opera’s musical content, even with a well-known work like Peter Grimes, puts a whole new perspective on a piece, and that is what happened here.

It was primarily Davis, the orchestra, and the LSO chorus that made this event so special, rather than the solo singers, a decent cast but one that set no new standards in the leading roles. Davis, of course, has been conducting this opera for most of his professional life—he presided over the Met’s second production in 1967—and an authoritative, carefully observed interpretation has now become an impassioned statement that combines a deep love of the music with an even deeper grasp of what lies behind the notes. It is a quite different view of the opera than the composer’s own recorded performance, as wonderfully precise and instrumentally brilliant as that is. Davis sees the opera as a complex, tragic canvas in which each detail further alienates Grimes from his community and pushes him step by step toward chaos, and with music that can be almost brutal in its raw theatrical power.

As Grimes, Glenn Winslade seemed at times rather overwhelmed by the role and the conductor’s fierce vision of the opera. His tenor is basically a solid and attractive instrument, but for whatever reason, he sounded vocally compromised and in distress a good deal of the time. Janice Watson sang a lovely Ellen Orford, Anthony Michaels-Moore was a sturdy Captain Balstrode, and the Borough’s community of eccentrics, bigots, and do-gooders came to life vividly enough. But it was Davis and the London Symphony who made this Peter Grimes glow so hotly, a recording of which will soon be released on the orchestra’s own label.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center no doubt expected a certain amount of tut-tutting when it decided to celebrate its 35th season with a series titled Sound Investment, four programs featuring highlights from the many new scores the Society has commissioned over the years. Imagine, sifting through this material to perform bits and pieces of it, a movement here, a movement there. How insulting to the composers. How philistine can a musical organization be? How much lower can concert life sink?

All that said, I attended the first concert and was mostly impressed by the quality of the music, its vitality and stylistic diversity, how expertly it was performed by 32 first-rate musicians, and how much the Chamber Music Society has done to enrich the repertory—far more than I had ever realized. Sure, it would have been nice to hear all nine of the scores played complete (two actually were), but no composer that I know of boycotted the occasion, and many gladly participated in it. I was especially happy to rehear even just a section from Poèmes de la Mort, for male trio and three electric guitars, based on poems by François Villon, one last pungent masterpiece from the great Swiss composer Frank Martin at age 81, still a vivid living presence when the Society gave the piece its premiere in 1971.

I’ll admit that the late Jacob Druckman was shortchanged with just a snippet from his Counterpoise, a score whose whole musical effect depends on the interaction and balanced symmetries of its various parts. The two movements of Lukas Foss’s Fifth String Quartet also sounded rather lonely, although the composer seemed grateful for the Guarneri Quartet’s elegant performance of what remained. Still, I couldn’t get all that huffy about the excerpting principle, any more than I would by listening to a singer perform a recital of opera arias ripped out of context. Besides, the main point was made: to remind us of how much good work the Chamber Music Society has done for new music, along with the promise of more to come.

Unless all its diverse ingredients are carefully considered and integrated, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov can sometimes seem like an endless epic. It did at the first performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival, a production that has already seen nearly 30 years of service and reappears here in a rather flabby restaging by David Kneuss. The big hole in the middle is James Morris, tackling the guilt-ridden Tsar Boris at the Met for the first time. Although his still-sturdy bass has no problems negotiating the notes, his presence is utterly lacking charisma, dramatic urgency, or spontaneity. Now I will pull down these hanging drapes, now I will turn over a table in my terror, now I will topple down a flight of stairs to my death—every unconvincing moment looks stilted and calculated.

There are a few bright spots in the large cast: Irina Mishura’s dangerous Marina, glamorous vocally as well as visually; Sergej Larin’s false Dimitri, clearly a slimy conniver underneath a dashingly handsome exterior; and a pair of genuine Russian buzz-saw bassos to give authenticity to the saintly Pimen (Vladimir Matorin) and that rapscallion vagabond monk, Varlaam (Vladimir Ognovenko). Mostly, though, the stage was sorely in need of some real theatrical tension. Semyon Bychkov conducted Mussorgsky’s original scoring thoughtfully but without giving much character to its rough-hewn integrity. Is it heresy to suggest that an occasional revival of Rimsky-Korsakov’s long-discredited but more glittery orchestration might not be such a crime?

Great Britten