The one piece that doesn't need to be championed in the Benjamin Britten 100th birthday year had an all-out concert presentation Friday at Carnegie Hall: Peter Grimes with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by David Robertson. Yet the event was perhaps as important as any resurrection of lesser-known Britten. Peter Grimes continues revealing new sides of itself, and the more deeply it is publicly examined, the better one understands the composer's less outgoing works.
In contrast to the so-called "Grimes on the Beach" in Aldeburgh in June that was as precise and literate as a Chekhovian theater, the St. Louis performance lost fine points of diction and instrumental balance as the price of a gale-force performance that felt like ancient Greek theater. One never realized how much Britten's chorus functions like the non-singing ones in Sophocles – in this story of a seaside town turning against a rogue fisherman whose apprentices keep dying mysteriously – until seeing the St. Louis chorus behind the orchestra, sometimes participating in the drama (and singing off-book) but, just as often, commenting on it.
Robertson reportedly planned to have the singers positioned in multiple areas around the hall, though at most, a side exit door was used for Grimes' escape and the church chorus was sung from the rear of the hall. No great loss. Operas in concert, once a medium that seemed dramatically stymied, is now a refuge from high-concept stagings. Without a strong-minded director breathing down his neck, Anthony Dean Griffey's portrayal of the title role was more soundly calculated than a few years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. And perhaps because the presentation wasn't on a repertory treadmill, cast, chorus and orchestra went for broke at every dramatic opportunity.
The opera still had peaks and valleys, but ones more steep and closer together, sometimes verging on overkill. But the opera can take it. By the second half, the in-your-face quality made the opera's often-nasty power was inescapable, leaving no room for intellectual detachment or personal inventory of how this compared with past encounters.
St. Louis Symphony's 'Peter Grimes' at Carnegie Hall with baritone Liam Bonner, soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (Julien Jourdes)
One key interpretive pivot is when, exactly, Grimes crosses the line into madness. Jon Vickers made the character simmer and explode. Griffey vacillated, keeping you guessing, enabled by his boyish upper register but with dark, rough edges elsewhere. When with his apprentice, threats of physical abuse also had Grimes hanging onto the kid like a life preserver. Using a vocal amplitude not apparent in her Mozart assumptions, Susanna Phillips projected Ellen Orford's grief behind her alliance with Grimes – more a matter of saving him than a marriage opportunity. Alan Held (Balstrode) and Meredith Arwady (Auntie) emerged as the dual truth-telling plot guides (not unlike the two narrators in Britten's later Rape of Lucretia), Arwady, in particular, projecting the character's importance with a fine, Erda-sized voice. The town busybody Mrs. Sedley had extra dimension from Nancy Maultsby.
Orchestra and chorus gave world-class performances, but with something extra. Past Robertson performances have always been those of a solid generalist; name a repertoire and he does it well, and with more programming ideas this side of Michael Tilson Thomas. But would you go to a concert specifically because he's conducting? After hearing how his finely-wrought sense of sound so insightfully colored the opera's psychology, I would indeed.