Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE HIDDEN HEART—A
LIFE OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN AND PETER PEARS
Benjamin Britten (pn, cond); Rupert Jeffcoatt, cond; Heather Harper (sop); Galina Vishnevskaya (sop); Julie Kennard (sop); Peter Pears (ten); James Gilchrist (ten); Robert Tear (ten); Various artists and orchestras
EMI 16571 (DVD: 78:00)
War Requiem, Peter Grimes, Death in Venice
An excellent film documentary on the career of Benjamin Britten and his
complex musical and personal relationship with tenor Peter Pears, produced and directed by Teresa Griffiths. Although the film includes a few other pieces by Britten (such as his early film music), it focuses on his three key works in which Pears was involved as a central or pivotal character:
Death in Venice
(1972). I consider myself very lucky to have seen the original Met Opera run of
Death in Venice
with Pears, baritone John Shirley-Quirk, and conductor Steuart Bedford, who was entrusted by Britten with conducting the opera in his absence. It was an unforgettable theatrical experience, not just because of the powerful nature of the libretto or the excellence of the music, but because of its presentation as a multimedia experience with images projected on a backdrop, the voice of Apollo (Andrea Velis) electronically piped into the proscenium from offstage. None of this sounds particularly innovative nowadays, but believe me, in 1974 it was mind-blowing.
Griffiths tackles the delicate situation of Pears and Britten’s intimacy very well. Without being graphic, she makes it very clear that Pears was Britten’s muse for the last 34 years of his life, and that the sexual side of their relationship—which Britten, being rather prudish by nature, was uncomfortable about discussing even in intimate letters to Pears—was always fueled, or tempered, by the extraordinary sensitivity of Pears’s singing. Nowadays there are several critics, Norman Lebrecht being the most vocal, for whom Peter Pears’s voice is an ugly obstacle to their appreciation of Britten’s work as composer, conductor, and pianist, but I find it difficult to disparage the tenor too much. He really was a great artist, although (as the archival footage proves) he was much better acting with the voice than acting on stage, though I recall his Aschenbach being quite overwhelming onstage. Indeed, one of my friends at the time, whose Met experience extended back to 1917 when he first went to hear Caruso, told Pears at a reception that his stage charisma reminded him of Feodor Chaliapin! (My friend reported that Pears seemed flattered but a little bewildered by the comparison.)
Some of the most moving and remarkable footage centers on the world premiere of the
At virtually the last minute, the Soviet Union refused to allow Galina Vishnevskaya to sing in the premiere because of the sensitivity that still existed in Russia at that time for the German invasion of World War II. Mstislav Rostropovich recalls going to one of the ambassadors and trying to intervene on her behalf, but being rebuffed without much discussion. Vishnevskaya was still bitter about the ban 30 years after the premiere, though she did get out of the Soviet Union to make the famed Decca recording of the work. Heather Harper, who subbed for her, admits that, since much of the music was specifically written for Vishnevskaya’s razor-like voice, it didn’t suit her terribly well, but says, “the lachrymosa was really something I felt very comfortable singing.” Her filmed performance of it remains deeply moving.
One myth about Britten dispelled in the film, widely circulated by word of mouth at the time but never in print, was that the composer’s heart operation had been a “botch job,” that somehow he suffered oxygen deprivation that led to his post-operative disability and eventual death. Britten’s doctor makes it clear that the operation went as planned, but that problems began to surface in the days following. Britten’s nurse also suggests, as she has for decades, that some part of Britten always “wanted to be an invalid,” and the operation was a perfect opportunity for him to become so. Whatever the true reason, the result broke Pears’s heart. He became very active outside of England during those years, not wanting to be reminded by Britten’s daily presence just how ill he really was. I’m not certain why Griffiths cut back and forth between the archive footage and a modern performance of the
, but I imagine they had to use Robert Tear singing excerpts from
Death in Venice
because, apparently, Pears never filmed the role.
Not all of Britten’s output is consistently excellent, but the works chosen as a three-legged stool to support the thread of this video are all certainly masterpieces. The inclusion of Harper, Britten’s nurse and nephew, and filmed reminiscences by those close to him make it almost seem like a family-produced affair. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Subtitles: French, German
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Benjamin Britten
Heather Harper (Soprano),
Benjamin Britten (Piano),
Peter Pears (Tenor),
Galina Vishnevskaya (Soprano),
James Gilchrist (Tenor),
Robert Tear (Tenor),
Julie Kennard (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
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