'Peter Grimes' review: Opera stars tackle a Vienna beaten by Omicron

VIENNA – Every time I open Instagram these days, I seem to be offered an ad for “Hamilton.” Once a music destination that took months o...

VIENNA – Every time I open Instagram these days, I seem to be offered an ad for “Hamilton.” Once a music destination that took months of planning or deep pockets to see, it’s now algorithmically spreading the word that last-minute tickets are up for grabs, no #Ham4Ham lottery required.

Such is the state of live performance as seen in the Omicron variant and keeps the wary audience at home.

Take the Vienna State Opera, one of the largest companies in the world and a major tourist attraction. Forced to close for almost a week in December due to the coronavirus, it is only now returning to full capacity. Nearly 450 seats (in a house that has just over 1,700) were still unsold on Wednesday morning, hours before the opening of a luxury revival of “Peter Grimes” by Britten – apparently one of the hottest tickets in Europe, with star tenor Jonas Kaufmann and rising soprano Lise Davidsen.

At curtain time, the hall seemed much fuller, but hundreds of tickets remain available for each future performance. It’s easy to see why people can be discouraged and why the company is practically begging for participation: Visitors to the State Opera, who are required to wear N95-grade masks inside the building, must also be fully vaccinated and boosted, as well as tested (by PCR, ostensibly not antigen) for the virus.

I was not the only one struggling to produce all the necessary documents for my entry: an ID, a non-transferable ticket, a vaccination certificate and a negative test result – which came with a price of 70 euros as I had traveled from Berlin, where rapid tests are widely available and free, but PCRs are not.

The things we do for opera.

And, in this case, for the opportunity to hear Kaufmann in her debut as Peter Grimes, as well as Davidsen in her first stage performance as Ellen Orford – first impressions of the roles these artists would play elsewhere in the seasons. to come, including the Metropolitan Opera.

Often stymied by the neon-streaked staging of Christine Mielitz’s opera — a psychologically complex tragedy of provincial cruelty and loneliness — Kaufmann and Davidsen seemed compelled to trust their dramatic instincts rather than a coherent vision. Although the evening was far from a disaster and was warmly received, neither singer seems to have found a new signature role.

Kaufmann, in particular, struggled to clearly trace his character’s decline from social isolation to volatility and suicidal delusions. A fisherman whom the mobbish villagers believe killed his apprentices, Grimes bears the brunt of perception; in this production he is literally weighed down by ropes and the bodies of the dead boys under his watch. Sounding equally weighty, Kaufmann mostly sang in weary tones, with an over-reliance on floating pianissimos punctuated with outbursts that were more heroic than painful or violent.

If this approach – resolutely resigned rather than mercurial – allowed for static storytelling, it paid off in Grimes’ climactic crazy scene. Long shunned under a halo of anguish, Kaufmann was all the more moving in this muffled monologue, giving a fatality to the death of his character.

But in this scene, as throughout the opera, Britten scatters a bristling articulation of marcato and staccato. Kaufmann instead opted for consistent legato, sometimes at odds with the orchestra and, in extreme cases, scrambling phrases to unintelligibility.

Ellen de Davidsen departs from the powerful roles of Wagner and Strauss that quickly made her famous. “Grimes” requires relative modesty, a challenge she rose to with graceful control on Wednesday — judiciously deploying whatever reverberation she is capable of when needed to exemplify her iron will in the face of small-town hasty judgments, and dropping to a glassy pianissimo in moments of convincing desperation. She matched the precise markings of the score with crisp delivery and diction, but also, in Act II, weaved a delicately mournful quartet with Noa Beinart as her aunt and Ileana Tonca and Aurora Marthens as the two nieces.

The other star on stage was bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, as Balstrode – who, aside from Ellen, is the only resident of the “borough” (as the town is called) who treats Grimes with some sympathy . But it was hard to discern in this performance; Terfel’s robust voice had a touch of wickedness about it, with smirks here and there that sounded like he was encouraging Grimes’ destructive path. It’s no surprise when Balstrode finally tells poor Grimes to sink with his boat at sea.

Other cast members stood out, for better or for worse: the touching textures of Martin Hässler’s Ned Keene and the dark comedy of Thomas Ebenstein’s Bob Boles; but also the shrill cries of Mrs. Sedley by Stephanie Houtzeel, an interpretation more suited to Brecht than to Britten.

Conductor Simone Young has shaped huge sonic peaks and valleys in the orchestra. The great interludes are distinct narratives: the first sets the tone with its chilling thinness, the third angular and balletic, the fifth gently rocked but tense. And the choir, monochromatically costumed and often moving in unison, sang with character as richly defined as any performer on stage. In Act III, its members truly embodied the destructive power of a determined mob.

This scene is one of the opera’s most gruesome, a great climax in a work that, when performed at this level, makes any onerous security protocol worthwhile. If you can overcome this hurdle, there are still plenty of opportunities – and plenty of tickets – to hear it for yourself.

Pierre Grimes

Until February 8 at the Vienna State Opera; wiener-staatsoper.at.

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Peter Grimes' review: Opera stars tackle a Vienna beaten by Omicron
'Peter Grimes' review: Opera stars tackle a Vienna beaten by Omicron
Newsrust - US Top News
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