Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Loony Lucie, Grave Grimes

Sam Shirakawa was in Duisburg last week to see perofrmances of DOnizetti's Lucia and Britten's Peter Grimes:

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Theater Duisburg
16 February 2011

Britten: Peter Grimes
Theater Duisburg
17 February 2011

How many desperate housewives since the beginning of the species have wanted to kill their spouses? Or at least castrate them? The thought must surely have occurred to Sir Walter Scott as he penned The Bride of Lammermoor (1819): The loopy heroine, madly in love with her family‘s arch-enemy but forced into a marriage of convenience, goes nuts on her wedding night, by relieving her husband of his.

Scott’s now-unreadable best-seller inspired a number of spinoffs, including Donizetti‘s operatic adaptation, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835). Indeed, it is the composer’s most popular work, its impact inspiring such literary giants as Flaubert, Tolstoy and E.M. Forster.

Licette Oropesa (Lucia),  Juditha Nagyrová (Alisa) | ©Hans Jörg Michel

Many dismiss Lucia as just a lot of tooney-tunes, signifying nothing. But for others, myself among them, Lucia’s infectious melodies and contagious set pieces serve to disguise the dark world of two siblings in a family on the skids -- both are out to get what they want, even by sacrificing each other, even as the music goes relentlessly oom pah pah pah. But Lucy’s relatively simple desire to love and be loved is no match for the pragmatic forces going against her, embodied by her brother Enrico. And so, she goes oom pah gah gah...

Christof Loy’s production from 1999 for Deutsche Oper am Rhein appears to support this view. Right from the start, American Lisette Oropesa’s Lucia seems a nickel short of a shilling: the currency of her wants cannot buy her the fulfillment she craves. It is a masterful performance -- always teetering deliriously at the edge of the abyss. Vocally, her top tended to wax wirey at first, but it blossomed out by the time she reached the Mad Scene.

Sergej Khomov was an aurally pleasing Edgardo, but he seemed content to stand and deliver, rather than give his part a convincing measure of dramatic punch. Boris Statsenko took a while to warm up as Lucia’s brother, but proved compellingly nasty in Enrico’s showdown with Lucy.

Others in the testosterone-heavy cast included Manfred Fink as a suitably blustery Arturo, Florian Simpson as a sonorous Normanno, Adrian Sampetrian as an effectively fidgety Raimondo and Juditha Nagyrová as a butch-looking Alisa.

Rainer Mühlbach kept an occasionally inattentive Duisberg Philharmonic from disintegrating.


The following evening, I returned to Duisburg to hear Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes for the first time in many years. Why so long? A comment made by an elderly woman to her companion as they fled during intermission may explain: “This is stressful, too stressful.” Unless you really adore Benjamin Britten, Pete the Angler can drive you straight to Xanax. His story is a downer -- much too sad to be told: A loner fisherman in a seaside village cannot shake off suspicions of foul-play, following the death of his apprentice. Rather than leave town, he remains to endure rumors and innuendos. Is some sort of salutory solution in the cards? Fuggedaboutit. (Peter Pears, who created the role, alluded to the plot as a veiled commentary on England‘s anti-homosexual morays in the 1940s.)

Robert0 Saccà (Grimes, Ensemble and Chorus of
Deutschen Oper am Rhein | ©Hans Jörg Michel

Britten puts the onus for getting a kick out of the old ennui primarily on the conductor. Axel Kober did his part by holding a tight rein on the complex rhythms articulated by the orchestra.

The crux of the dramatic tension, though, lies in portraying Peter Grimes’ seemingly unending capacity for bearing torment with sustained conviction. Physically, Roberto Saccà in the eponymous role was the very picture of a tortured soul. Now in his vocal prime, he articulated Grimes’ inner agony wrenchingly. Christina Dietzsch as Ellen Orford, was equally tightly focussed, slimming down her light soprano to reveal the character’s inner strength.

Others in the exceptional cast included Renée Morloc (Auntie), Susannah Haberfeld (Mrs. Sedley), Thomas Konieczny (Captain Balstrode), and James Bobby (Ned Keene). The unnamed diction coach, by the way, deserved a hand.

The chorus and orchestra were also in outstanding form, although the band had a couple of ragged entrances.

Immo Karaman's quasi-expressionist production from 2009 evokes the narrow-minded provinciality of an English seaside hamlet in virtually every move the townspeople surrounding Grimes make. Volker Weinhart's creepy lighting, Kaspar Zwimpfer's weather-worn sets and Nicola Reichert's dour costumes etch out a remorseless universe.

Footnote: In late 1989, I paid a visit to Sir Reginald Goodall, who conducted the premiere of Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in 1945. As in our previous conversations, the topic centered mostly on Wagner. I was about to ask him about Grimes, when a nurse at his assisted living residence in Canterbury interrupted us to whisk him off for his afternoon nap. We exchanged promises to meet again on my next trip to England.

He died several months later.

I never got to ask him, among many other things, if he had any inkling at the time of the premiere, that this bleak work would become such a huge international success. But I suspect he knew it would.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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