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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Opera review: Canadian Opera Company's Peter Grimes a prime dramatic catch

By John Terauds on October 5, 2013

 

Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes (Photo: Michael Cooper).
Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production, which opened Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre (Photo: Michael Cooper).

The Canadian Opera Company confirmed at the opening of Peter Grimes at the Four Seasons Centre on Saturday night that it has two winning productions to open the new season.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Grimes, premiered in London in 1945, is the opposite of a feel-good night out. Benjamin Britten’s spare, hypnotically evocative music and Montagu Slater’s intense, poetic libretto (based on “The Borough,” an early 19th century poem by George Crabbe) is psychologically dark and dense.

The story turns around Grimes, a loner fisherman who has an unfortunate habit of losing his underage apprentices. The writers show us clearly that these are accidents, but the villagers assume the worst of a man who has never made an effort to be friendly or even polite.

American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, standing in for an indisposed Ben Heppner, was magnificent, ably walking a tightrope strung taught between unlikeability and vulnerability and capturing the full breadth of emotion that Britten embeds in the vocal part. [Ben Heppner returned to the role on Oct. 8, doing a better than fine job, by all accounts. Everyone expects him to complete the run.]

The rest of the cast and chorus sang and acted at the same exalted level, helping flesh out the drama and turn the psychological screws all the more tightly.

Canadian soprano Ileana Montalbetti deserves a nod for her deeply affecting Ellen Orford, the woman who sees something worth loving where no one else will. Based on what we heard and saw on Saturday, this Ensemble Studio alumna should be enjoying a great career.

This is very much an ensemble opera, and the casting is unusually strong.

The Canada Opera Company Orchestra and music director Johannes Debus made magic of Britten’s score, which evokes so much with a bare minimum of notes and instruments. Peter Grimes is one of many examples of Britten’s musical craft being offered to Torontonians this fall that showcase the genius of England’s most famous 20th century composer.

This co-production with Houston Grand Opera, West Australian Opera and Opera Australia also achieves much with very little, setting the Prologue and subsequent three acts in an all-purpose hangar-slash-shed, visually updated to more or less the time of Grimes’ premiere at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Director Neil Armfield has decided to add the poet George Crabbe (played by Thomas Hauff) as a silent figure to provide movement during the entractes, but the purpose of having this ghostlike older man wandering around rather aimlessly on stage was never made clear (Slater wrote the character into one scene only). [Correction: David Alden, see comments, points out that Crabbe’s character is meant to be a silent presence throughout, and that it’s up to the director to decide how to make this happen.]

Otherwise, this production cleanly and powerfully evokes a knife drawer full of glinting dualities: the allure as well as threat of the sea, the weather, of small-town life, love and self-sufficiency.

This is a long opera — coming in at 195 minutes with two intermissions — but its searing psychological content, the excellent orchestra, great staging and some extraordinary work by the singers make time fly by in this potent night of musical theatre.

There are seven performances to Oct. 26. The COC is not saying if Griffey is staying on any longer, or if Heppner is doing better. But one certainly can’t go wrong in seeing the American tenor sing the title role. You can find all of the production and ticket details here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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