Monday, April 14, 2008

Peter Grimes is an Opera for Knitters (a Rather Pretentious Post)

After reading Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, Jared got very excited about the music of Benjamin Britten. Britten was a 20th century British composer of many works, including several operas. This is where Jared got me interested too. I'm only a passing fan of much classical music, but I am an opera fiend. So we decided to rent a production of Britten's most famous opera, Peter Grimes, on Netflix.
When we sat down to watch, it was a Friday night and I was (as usual) very tired from a long day at work and consequently not too interested in anything "complicated." (These are the nights when I convince Jared to watch a Jeeves & Wooster or he convinces me to watch a Trailer Park Boys.) But I dutifully agreed to watch the two and a half hour opera.
I'm sorry to say that I don't remember much of the beginning, including what I now know is a brilliantly ambient and evocative overture. But once the scene in the pub came around, my jaw hit the floor. This is, of course, the central aria for Peter Grimes: "Now the Great Bear," and the tenor is Jon Vickers. He comes in through a dead silence at a pianissimo E above middle C and holds it through the first few phrases of the aria. A sudden forte outburst takes him all over the scale, then back to the pianissimo E which swells to a fortissimo, then drops the note and the volume to conclude. The vocalization and the music are ingenious; and as I watched, I was spellbound. Jared got tired quickly after, so we went to bed with the idea of finishing the opera the next day.
In the morning, we turned the DVD back on, and I insisted we started it from "Now the Great Bear" so we could hear it again. This time, Jared was just as transfixed, and we gushed about the great find we had made. "Jon Vickers," I said, "is such a powerful, brilliant tenor. And," I added as an afterthought, "he really rocks that fisherman gansey."
It never stops, kids.
A few weeks later, the Metropolitan Opera came out with their new production of Peter Grimes, so Jared and I went to the local theater to catch the simulcast. In that setting, I was able to pay more attention to both the music and the story. This time it really struck me how integral knitting was to the plot of the opera. The leading female role, Ellen Orford, is a knitter in a big way. She constantly carries her basket around, and skips church to do her knitting by the sea. One of the items she knits is a jersey for Peter's apprentice (a new hire, for the first apprentice died under suspicious circumstances). When the boy falls to his death from the cliff outside Peter's home, the jersey is washes up to shore. Ellen finds it and bemoans how her knitting and embroidery, which had once filled her idle hours, had now become "the fatal clue" that would prove the undoing of the man she tried to save. The townsfolk assume that Peter murdered both boys and form a mob, driving Peter to madness and suicide.
I'm not sure how this translates to the "sweater curse"--never knit a sweater for your gentleman suitor's apprentices if they have a habit of getting suspiciously killed, perhaps--but it has me thinking about those "traditional" ganseys, made of rough, weather-proof wool and intricately cabled. Well maybe I can use something a little softer--we're not going fishing after all. And maybe not so bulky, since Jared is skinny, not like those burly fishermen or barrel shaped Wagnerian tenors. But it is about time I knitted him a sweater, and what better theme than one inspired by his favorite opera? I might have to find a gansey book and start designing something.

You can listen to a little of Peter Grimes on this New York Times story about the Met's 2008 production. This clip starts out with "Now the Great Bear" and continues through the end of the pub scene. It features tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who has a beautiful and disarmingly gentle voice.

No comments: