Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, Montagu Slater, 1945) at the Canadian Opera Company. A 2003 COC co-production with Opera Australia, Houston GO and West Australian Opera. Conducted by Johannes Debus, revival director Denni Sayers, original stage director Neil Armfield.
[My earlier Xtra intro to Grimes here.]
I love this score to pieces, and the biggest highlight for me last night was the COC orchestra. There are so many things in the work that keeps you interested: the composed-through sections with or without the ariosos, with or without the motivic reminiscing; the detachable numbers and arias; the inventive choral sections and the tutti scenes that remind of Gershwin and even of the musicals; the contrapuntal ensembles; the recitative-like dialogue, the spoken word dialogue, and what seemed to be in this production a hybrid of the two in the character of Mrs Sedley (here a buffo character).
There are so many parts worth analyzing, but let’s just look at the “passacaglia” in the second scene of Act 2, as we enter chez Grimes. Passacaglia is a form that starts with a little something that keeps repeating while the other instruments start piling on. So here the plucked basses and cellos start off a simple ostinato. Then the viola solo adds itself, and after its minute of fame, the more lively woodwinds, followed by the high strings and the brass. The drama on the stage rises as does the number of instruments playing.
The COC Orchestra’s Principal Viola Keith Hamm played this solo last night (so mournful and deep of sound that I was sure it was the cello). The solo returns later at the end of that scene, as the men have left Grimes’s hut and Balstrode, all alone, looks down the cliff.
For Grimes, strings, brass and percussion sections get reinforcements, so there were seven cellos (Bryan Epperson principal) and seven basses (Alan Molitz principal), plus the one harp, Sarah Davidson. (Gotta do the Interludes justice, thence: fourteen Violin I, twelve Violin II, ten Viola.)
The “fog horn” in the final scene, playing a single chromatic chord echoed by Peter Grimes on stage, mixing with the off stage chorus and a whole lot of silence, was the tuba. (Took some time figuring this out as a review of a recent British Grimes cites “three muted horns”—so, conductors can get creative with this apparently, even though the score enjoins a tuba (see Boosey)). The tuba was played back stage by Mark Bonang.
There was also a celesta in the orchestra, ladies and gents (Jenna Douglas), and an organ for the church music scenes (Wayne Vogan).
The score lets each orchestral section shine, and each of them came through. Woodwinds were birdies, brass were distinct without overpowering, and the strings… what can one say about the strings here. Sea. Moonlight. Storm rain. Anything sublime that Britten invites to the score.
The chorus is of course essential for Grimes, and the COC chorus showed us what it got (Chorus Master, Sandra Horst). Stuff like the septuple metered “Old Joe”, with conflicting singing lines, was wild fun.
What about the production? It is interesting enough. All the action that would usually happen outdoors or in the pub takes place at the dreary “community hall”, which is a good idea. The only set change happens for the scenes in the Grimes hut, here the theatre-within-theatre part of the hall which moves to the front for that bit of the opera, leaving the rest of the hall hidden behind. The biggest challenge for the director of the non-literal production of Grimes is how to solve the scene of the boy’s death. Various directors take liberties with that key point and make Grimes more responsible or less responsible than what the libretto instructs. Stage direction is clear that Grimes is not in physical contact with the boy, but yells at him to hurry up so they can get away before the mob arrives (announced by the music of the marching men). Neil Armfield introduces a rope – I’ve seen this in some other productions on DVD too – with which Grimes ties little John around the waist before the boy leaves down the steep path and which Grimes controls until he is startled by the approaching mob and loses the grip. I am not a huge fan of this solution. So much else works in the production, but this scene left me wanting.
Singers! Ben Heppner’s voice was on and off. Some of the most intimate moments were disturbed by the appearance of croak—“Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”, for example. Acting-wise, there was not an iota of danger in Heppner’s Grimes, who is more of the good-humoured teddy-bear type. Then there’s also Heppner’s physique which doesn’t exactly evoke the years of food rationing and destitution.
On he other hand, Alan Held was an excellent Captain Balstrode, and the mezzos were good – Jill Grove as a cleared-voiced Auntie audible in every ensemble and Judith Christin as the wobbly, laudanum-addicted Mrs Sedley. Peter Barrett, Roger Honeywell and other smaller roles created memorable characters.
The two nieces were okay but there was absolutely no “gutter” in either–nothing in their frilliness to indicate they are conscious of what their real profession is (which happens to be the same as Mrs Warren’s). Ileana Montalbetti is a growing singer and it will be interesting to see how she settles into the heavier repertoire further in her career. As Ellen Orford, her voice showcased its trademark metallic sheen, which you’ll like if you like that kind of thing for this kind of role.
But never mind the odd singer quibble: I will go to see Grimes again, as I can’t wait to bite into that multi-layered orchestral and choral cake again.
All photos by Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company. Top, Ileana Montalbetti and several of the comprimario singers surrounded by the chorus. One down, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes and Jakob Janutka as John the apprentice. Final picture: Jill Grove as Auntie and Alan Held as Captain Balstrode.