Peter Grimes in a moment. I need to talk about Natalie first. When Renée Fleming hosts the Met in HD intermission segment, I become a swooning Renée fan. So try to imagine my state upon seeing Natalie Dessay — my Natalie — in the same role. At least I knew in advance that she was hosting; had I not, my joy may well have been audibly uncontainable. Instead, I just did what I usually do when I see Natalie. I sat enraptured and burst into silent tears. It's almost become more a physical reflex than a precise emotional response — Natalie appears and I well up immediately. I really do love that woman. She is hilarious, more than slightly insane, completely adorable and phenomenally, breathtakingly talented. It's the last of these qualities which make the rest so meaningful.
And it was a slightly strange experience to share her with a crowd. I felt curiously possessive as I heard the rest of the theatre fall laughingly in love with her. I thought, what do you all know? She's my Natalie. And I wanted to say, yes, she's very French and funny and a little bit scatty here, but do you all realise that she's also one of the most fiercely intelligent singers of her generation? Do you realise she is not only sweet and charming, but also just terribly important? That when John Doyle talks about the importance of singers who can act, and says "you know that more than anyone", he doesn't just mean "you, as a present day opera singer", he means "you, as Natalie Dessay, a defining figure in opera as theatre"? Some of them probably do realise all of this. Some, I suspect, do not. And I don't know what to wish — all at once, I want everyone to know the fullness of her fabulousness and I want to keep her all for myself. And neither is practical or possible.
Everybody's favourite Natalie moment — it was mine too — was her repeated attempts at pronouncing "Aldeburgh". Followed immediately by a Very BBC presenter from BBC East who immediately pronounced it properly. She also asked Donald Palumbo if he beats the chorus. And there was this pearl for Maestro Runnicles. "You are from Scotland! Donald is from Scotland! Benjamin Britten is from England! Do you feel a special connection to his music because of this?" Asked by Renée, it would probably seem quite a normal question, but the wonderful strangeness of Natalie gives it an air of amusing silliness. We also loved her Tales From the Crypt introductions of "the horrible story...of...Peter Grimes"; the second of these actually earnt her a brief ovation.
And in between Natalie's hosting duties, there was an opera. It's rather unfair of me to introduce it like that, because in fact, Peter Grimes was kind of stunning. I love Benjamin Britten quite madly and yet our acquaintance is still rather limited. But everything I get to know strengthens my affection, and Peter Grimes is no exception. The depth and multicoloured darkness of it, the evocative orchestral textures and Britten's ever perceptive and gorgeous writing for the voice — all this fascinates and enchants me. There is something about Britten which just naturally agrees with me. I'd not heard Peter Grimes before but I certainly plan to hear it again. Sadly, as this is the only one of the HD broadcasts not to sell out, it's also the only one not getting an encore screening. It's also the only one I've felt inclined to see a second time.
Britten deserves first credit for my immediate attraction to this opera. Next, Donald Runnicles who brought it to such excruciatingly exquisite and occasionally brutal life. And then the wonderful Anthony Dean Griffey. I know him from his Mitch on the DG recording of A Streetcar Named Desire. His Grimes has that same careful combination of tremendous power and lyrical fragility, with the added bonus of having first rate music to sing. He clearly has got to the heart of this character, loves him even, though he's not the easiest man to love. He told Natalie that he felt he'd spent his entire life preparing for the role, and it shows. He was, in a way, quite beautiful.
I'm also happy finally to have had a chance to see Patricia Racette in action. All I've had to go on previously were a couple of Met radio broadcasts, but this was a far better showcase. She's serenely lovely here and in radiant voice. Her Embroidery Aria had rather more brilliance and clarity than Renée's, the only other rendition I've ever heard. She's magic in the scene with the boy as well. (And I have to say, I'm so pleased Britten let this boy be a mute role.) Of course, I also loved it when she and Jill Grove, finding they had walked into shot behind Natalie's interview, promptly linked arms and strode through like a couple of characters from Little Women. Speaking of Jill Grove — another happy revelation! I've only previously heard Jill as Tisbe on the DVD of Cenerentola with Cecilia. Much more to sing here and a far more interesting role, and she's rather wonderful. Yes, it's a rather broad American accent to hear from the landlady in an English seaside village, but no matter.
Naturally there were a few little cheers and, come curtain call, a special round of applause, for Teddy Tahu Rhodes. These Australians seem to imagine he's theirs. It was a nice change to see him with plenty of clothes on, and to hear him singing something other than Stanley — eight Streetcars had me feeling I'd heard enough Teddy to last a lifetime, but he really does make some pretty fantastic sounds as Ned Keene. I honestly can't tell if he can act or not, but there's something innately appealing about him, and I'm not talking about the pin-up stuff. He's likeable. His voice is a little unusual, not for all tastes or all moods, but it was quite resplendent here. But I'm wondering whether he's much of an accent person; Ned Keene sometimes sounded rather like Stanley, and yet not American — so perhaps his Stanley wasn't particularly Southern. I thought he was at the time, but then, my attention was mostly elsewhere.
John Doyle's production has received a fair bit of ambivalent and downright negative comment. I actually liked it a lot, it seems a good match to the atmosphere of the score. Dark, menacing, oppressive. I don't mind the chorus just being lined up across the stage, to stand and sing at the audience; it highlights the implicit attacks they're making, and maybe reflects the way the villagers exist in Grimes' psyche. I am, however, very glad indeed that the so-called "Wall of LGBT Role Models" was deleted early on from the finale. Actually it might have been weirdly interesting to see, but I just cannot fathom how anybody could possibly have thought it should be included in the first place. I thought it sounded absurd when I read about it; now that I've actually seen the production, the thought of it is bewildering — it would be a strange idea in any production, but here it would seem a completely incongruous concept, since nothing preceding it seems to emerge from the same interpretive angle. At least, I didn't think it did; this seemed to me, symbolic set design aside, a pretty non-interventionist production, happy to keep the opera ambiguous, open simultaneously to multiple interpretations without choosing one point in particular to hammer. So suddenly making that point at the end seems bizarre to me; thank god they (whoever "they" might be in this case) thought better of it.
Next up is Tristan & Isolde. I had considered booking for two (or even three!) screenings of this, just for the pleasurable pain of it — well, that and so that I could say that I had. However, having read of Barbara Willis Sweete's crimes against camerawork in her filming of it, I'm resisting. Six split screens? I hate to think. So even though it's Wagner, and even though it's Debbie, I think once will be enough.