Tonight I saw the Canadian Opera Company production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. I’m late getting to the party for a production that opened on October 5th, but I was out of town that weekend. Regular readers of newspaper reviews will likely have heard of the opening night drama due to the indisposition of Ben Heppner in the title role & his late replacement by Anthony Dean Griffey. Perhaps my timing is good, considering that Heppner is now healthy.
The COC have already commemorated Verdi (Il trovatore) & Wagner (Tristan und Isolde) in this year of Centennials, and now it’s Benjamin Britten’s turn, even if he’s only 100 rather than 200 years old.
The program called Britten the “leading opera composer of the 20th century”. I like Britten but would call him “a”, not “the” leading opera composer of the 20th century, partly because I prefer Richard Strauss & Puccini to Britten, partly because such preferences are shared by a great many people (for example, if you read the statistical website operabase).
Some operas are such a good match to the strengths of certain companies that they serve to bring out the best in that ensemble. Such is the case with Peter Grimes. I’d go so far as to say that this is the kind of opera that the COC should be producing, because it shows off everything that’s good about this company
- The opera is full of choral work, meaning not just singing but acting
- The orchestra gets moments to shine playing difficult music
- The opera is full of smaller parts that draw upon the talents in the COC Ensemble Studio
Peter Grimes is a kind of template, matching excellence we’ve seen before. One of the high-water marks for this company in recent years was their production of Prokofiev’s War & Peace, another 20th century work requiring choral & orchestral brilliance, and an abundance of small parts to create a gripping piece of music-theatre. While the principals—whom I’ll speak of in a moment—were also good, that’s not really what makes this opera fly (nor War & Peace). I hope General Director Alexander Neef notices how well the company responds top to bottom, when confronted with a challenging work. The orchestra, especially when led by Johannes Debus, seems to get better every year. They seemed to make a quantum leap last year, sounding phenomenal in Tristan und Isolde and in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. Hm, I think the Poulenc also matches the template somewhat—20th century, dramatic, wonderful chorus work & ensemble work—although if we push the idea too far it becomes so tenuous as to be meaningless.
As I mentioned, Heppner’s back in form after whatever ailed him on the 5th, nearly two weeks ago. I can’t get over how wonderful it is to again see a Canadian star repatriated after a magnificent career abroad, his Toronto appearances a tiny bit of icing on his cake. Perhaps we’ll see him again in this city, now that he seems to be settling into his other role at CBC radio.
I can’t rely on my memory to properly contextualize Heppner’s achievement. I saw Jon Vickers sing Grimes here in Toronto in the 1980s, (a rare visit by the Metropolitan Opera at a festival) an interpretation that was ground-breaking in its brave transgression of the composer’s own idea of the role. While I recall Vickers giving us something like madness, a desperation in his repeated lines of “I’ll marry Ellen”, Heppner proudly sang the same lines to the rafters. Heppner’s reading is romantic, a man who has a strong vision but who simply seems to make mistakes, a tragedy tripped up by fortune and his headstrong ways, where Vickers’ Grimes seems like a more genuinely dark & troubled soul. I think Heppner’s reading is a valid alternative, that maybe we don’t need to see madness.
Neil Armfield’s decision to set the production in times contemporary with Britten is not radical by usual operatic practice, especially given his self-reflexive reading centred on Doctor Crabbe, the figure whose writings are the source for the libretto. The focus on the doctor is fascinating, but I did not find anything particularly illuminating in this interpretation. What’s more, the updating (from 1830s to the 1940s) makes some of the story more troubling. The rough treatment meted out by Grimes looks very different set in the 1830s, when the boys came from workhouses, than if it suddenly becomes a 20th century story. By updating I was troubled, applying more modern standards of behaviour for Grimes (especially when the boys are shown as children allowed to play, not refugees from workhouses lugging coal or performing child labour). When we add in the framing –with Dr Crabbe—I found I was simply confused, unclear as to whether I should think of Grimes as a modern or not. None of this detracts from Heppner’s work, but it did serve to distract me in places as I struggled to decode the reading. Armfield gets wonderfully light ensemble work from his company in places, especially at the beginning of the last act, to counter-balance the tragic story arc for Grimes. Perhaps I should allow that Armfield creates a densely woven social fabric, where almost everyone is likeable at some level, where there are no blatant villains or cardboard characterizations, and where one’s emotions may be deeply conflicted.
The other leads were strong. Alan Held, who has had several excellent roles with the COC over the past two years (Kurwenal, Gianni Schicchi and Jochanaan) was a suitably powerful presence, one of the two key moral reference-points in the opera. The other was the Ellen Orford of Ileana Montalbetti, very believable in her embodiment of Grimes’ fondest dream of happiness.
Jill Grove, a powerful Amneris a couple of years ago, gave a colourful portrayal of Auntie, with a voice as powerful as her presence. I found myself constantly watching Robert Pomakov throughout, a suitably rough-edged Hobson. In addition, Owen McCausland (the reverend), Tom Corbeil(Swallow), and Claire de Sévigné & Danielle MacMillan (as the wacky pair of nieces) were standouts. Should I name everyone? Okay. Peter Barrett, Judith Christin, and Roger Honeywell all had moments to shine, and no one was less than compelling.
The COC production of Peter Grimes continues until October 26th at the Four Seasons Centre. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre that is not only worth seeing, but –if I get my wish—is worth emulating in future seasons.