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A wonderful Britten centennial tribute

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/05/2013 -  & October 8, 11, 17, 20, 23, 26, 2013
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, opus 33
Anthony Dean Griffey (Peter Grimes), Ileana Montalbetti (Ellen Orford), Alan Held (Captain Balstrode), Peter Barrett (Ned Keene), Roger Honeywell (Bob Boles), Judith Christin (Mrs Sedley), Jill Grove (Auntie), Tom Corbeil (Swallow), Robert Pomakov (Hobson), Owen McCausland (Rev Horace Adams), Claire de Sévigné (First Niece), Danielle MacMillan (Second Niece), Thomas Hauff (Dr. Crabbe), Jakob Janutka (John)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)
Neil Armfield (Director), Denni Sayers (Revival Director), Ralph Myers (Set Designer), Tess Schofield (Costume Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting Designer)

A.D. Griffey (© Michael Cooper)

For many in the audience, the major factor of the opening night of this production of Peter Grimes was who was not singing, namely Ben Heppner, sidelined by a throat ailment. The company was indeed lucky that Anthony Dean Griffey happened to be available. He is not only familiar with the role (and how!), he also has experience in Neil Armfield’s production (its Houston performances in 2010 were reviewed on this website.

The production comes with its own curtain on which is pictured a stormy seascape by John Constable - this is wonderfully evocative. However when the curtain rises we are faced with what turns out to be the unit set: a scruffy community hall c. 1950. It takes a bit to adjust to the fact that this must pass for the various locations specified in the libretto, while the modernized setting renders certain references (workhouse, horsecart) anachronistic. However the design, supported by the staging, certainly drives home the fact of the community’s restricted, hermetic existence.

The sea interludes are accompanied by the sight of borough folk rearranging the utilitarian furniture. This sounds awfully mundane, but the music is so evocative, as is Damien Cooper’s lighting, that it all adds up. Adding to the mood of the work is the constant silent presence of Dr. George Crabbe, future author of the poem on which the opera is based, who closely and thoughtfully observes his fellow citizens. He takes part in the action just once, in Act III when his name is mentioned by a tipsy man leaving Auntie’s pub.

Not only has Anthony Dean Griffey mastered every possible nuance of the title role, he comes across as the most sympathetic (in fact heart-rending) Grimes I’ve seen. (Others include Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner, both wonderful.) He is truly the solid core to a terrific cast overall. Ileana Montalbetti, not that long out of the company’s Ensemble Studio, has recently added Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio to her repertory. This means her voice leans toward the dramatic fach which makes for a strong Ellen Orford, just what the role calls for. Other roles are also well performed: Alan Held (always welcome back) as Captain Balstrode; Peter Barrett as Ned Keene; Roger Honeywell as the irritating, bible-thumping Bob Boles; Judith Christin as the importunate, calculating Mrs Sedley; Jill Grove as Auntie; and Tom Corbeil who, as the lawyer Mr Swallow, gets entangled with the “nieces”. The staging also includes a lot of effective individualized direction for chorus members.

Orchestra and chorus are up to their usual high standard under the direction of Johannes Debus. The sea interludes alone would justify attending a second time (and perhaps Mr Heppner will be well enough to sing). To sum up: this is a thrillingly dark and probing production of Britten’s masterpiece.

Michael Johnson



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