Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Scene from COC production of Peter Grimes. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has judiciously chosen a real chestnut (La Bohéme) and a more complex if less popular work, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, for its fall season. The latter is given a well-sung and directed production despite some faux pas in the set design and the characterization of Peter Grimes by tenor Ben Heppner.

Peter Grimes is an orchestral masterpiece that requires superb choral singing and has a richly-textures and complex plot. The title role requires a strong tenor voice and a singer with acting ability. Heppner usually has no problem in either category but in this performance, he fell short in his characterization of the hapless man.

Grimes is a fisherman whose young apprentice died during a storm at sea. Even though the death is ruled accidental, the townspeople turn on him. Peter Grimes is a loner, an outsider, who longs to belong to the community in which he is considered a misfit. As a result, he is angry and full of incipient violence as he dreams of making money and being able to marry and belong to his community.

Heppner appears like a roly-poly misfit who sings well but who displays no anger and no violence. His characterization lacks forcefulness and a Peter Grimes without those characteristics is incomplete. In fairness, I should mention that Heppner was indisposed for the opening of Peter Grimes on October 5 but took over the role on October 8 and that may have played a part in his performance or the original Director Neil Armfield (Denni Sayers was the revival director) simply miscalled the characterization of the opera’s anti-hero.

Bass-baritone Alan Held brought in the strongest performance as Captain Balstrode, the retired skipper. Held provided the vocal vigour that we expected from Heppner as well as a convincing performance as one Grimes’s few friends in the town.

Soprano Ileana Montalbetti was a very well sung and sympathetic Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress that Grimes dreamt of marrying. She exuded sweetness and humanity in the midst of the town mob and was the vision of Grimes’s possible salvation.

There is a marvelous conjunction of emotions and actions at the climax of the opera in Act 2. It is a sunny Sunday morning on a street by the sea and we hear a church service in the background. Ellen is comforting the new apprentice. Grimes wants to exploit him in order to make money and win the respect of his community. We hear beautiful bits of the Gloria and Benedicite as Grimes becomes furious and strikes Ellen. The music grows dissonant, the drums strike ominously as Grimes intones angrily “So be it – and God have mercy upon me.” His fate is sealed in a marvelous scene that is done splendidly.   

There is a silent character of a doctor in the opera sometimes called Dr. Thorp and at other times Dr. Crabbe. The libretto is based on George Crabbe’s poem The Borough and Armfield has chosen to name the character like the poet. He uses him as a silent Chorus throughout the production. Dr. Crabbe sees everything and says nothing and I found it an interesting approach by the director.

Britten makes major demands on the orchestra and the chorus and here they both performed brilliantly under conductor Johannes Debus.

The production uses a single set designed by Ralph Myers. It consists of a large room that can be an assembly area in a town hall or be converted into a tavern or a street scene. There is a stage at the back of the room that is brought forward for the scene in Grimes’s hut. The set works well for the other scenes but the hut is supposed to be an upturned boat on the edge of a cliff. In this production, it looks as if Grimes’s is living on a stage. We lose the effect of the dangerous location of the hut and the inevitable tragedy that results from it.  

The latter is a minor glitch but Heppner’s characterization is more significant. That did not prevent the production form being quite a fascinating staging of a difficult opera. 

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten with libretto by Montagu Slater opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times on various dates until October 26, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

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