Benjamin Britten

By accident or by design, two of Los Angeles’ major musical organizations have taken on Benjamin Britten simultaneously this month. If you were at the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County – the mouthful of a new name for the former perfectly well-named Music Center – last Saturday (October 21),  you could have bathed in Britten practically nonstop: the L.A. Opera’s “Peter Grimes” in the afternoon, the Philharmonic’s “War Requiem” at night.
The experience, I can personally vouch, would have left you exalted and exhausted. Nothing in the Britten canon cuts closer to the bone than these two extraordinary scores, sixteen years apart and yet alike in their quotient of violent outcry and pure rage. It has taken the quarter-century since Britten’s early death (at 63, in 1976) to assess the balance between the man and his music. Pacifist, unruly and sometimes unquestioning advocate of leftwing causes, homosexual – and citizen of a troubled nation at a time when any or all these attitudes constituted actionable offenses – Britten let his music speak for his soul, its joys and its torments. “Peter Grimes,” in its anatomical dissection of its hero driven to suicide by the misunderstanding of his fellow villagers; the “War Requiem,” in its setting the sardonic, nihilistic verses of the martyred Wilfred Owen in among the acceptances preached by the classic Latin service – both these on a single day under Los Angeles’ serene skies made for an experience not easily forgotten.
Britten has fared well at the L.A. Opera, from  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the company’s second season to this year’s triumphant “Billy Budd.” For “Grimes” the company brought in Hollywood’s (but Brit-born) master director John Schlesinger, augmenting a relationship with the other neighborhood industry too feebly pursued in previous years. On designer Luciana Arrighi’s workaday sets – she had worked with him on “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” – Schlesinger devised a powerful, raw unfolding of Britten’s tale, one in which the huge chorus was particularly successful in standing in as a village of flesh-and-blood residents. All breathing stopped out front in that devastating moment in Act 3, as that chorus, transformed into a lynch mob, rushed downstage and screams out its “PE-TER GRIMES!!!!” at the footlights; you’d have thought the waves from an actual North Sea tempest were battering out into the hall.
Scottish Opera’s Richard Armstrong conducted, solidly if unspectacularly. Philip Langridge was the Grimes, the role he inherited from Peter Pears and Jon Vickers and now owns; Nancy Gustafson, looking somewhat young for a widowed schoolmarm, was the sweet-voiced Ellen; Richard Stillwell was the sympathetic Balstrode, proving that an American can hold his own among Brits.
Antonio Pappano, soon to take on the Royal Opera’s music directorship, conducted a splendid reading of the Requiem, with L.A.’s Master Chorale and its splendid Paulist Boychoir (the latter located, alas, far backstage and not fully audible).Britain’s other great tenor of the moment, the young former Oxford Don and authority on baroque witchcraft Ian Bostridge, made his Southern California debut in the “War Requiem,” and that, too, was an extraordinary experience. His was the brunt and his the thread of gold, in his recreation of  Owen’s harrowing condemnations, the sardonic twists to the retelling of the Abraham-and-Isaac fable, the hollow horror as the dead British soldier encounters “the enemy you killed, my friend.” German baritone Thomas Mohr was an eloquent partner; as the two joined voices at the end, and the boys’ voices sounded a distant “requiem aeternam,” you got the sense of how overpowering a musical experience can be under proper circumstances. These were.