Review: Peter Grimes (Canadian Opera Company)

Rich and enticing voices pair with stunning and complex instrumentals in Canadian Opera Company’s Peter Grimes playing at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten opens in what appears to be a high school auditorium. The auditorium is being used to conduct an inquest into the death of a young boy. Peter Grimes is the only suspect. The second production of the Canadian Opera Company‘s (COC) current season was written in 1945, and is based on the “Peter Grimes” section of a collection of poems entitled The Borough by George Crabbe.

Nineteenth century poet George Crabbe appears as a silent observer to the unfolding tale several times throughout the opera creating an opportunity for long and complex instrumental passages. While I primarily go to the opera for the singing, I found the overture, entr’actes and scene transitions to be some of the most stunning passages of this opera. Britten’s superb grasp of instrumentation and the colours that can be elicited from each section of the orchestra is in full bloom in this work.

The overture uses each section to lay out the emotional themes of the piece. We hear beautifully communicated inner turmoil confusion from the strings and strident rage and violence from the horns and lower brass. The COC orchestra outdid itself last night and gave one of the most nuanced and gripping performances I have heard from them.

The title role was performed by American tenor, Anthony Dean Griffey in lieu of Ben Heppner. Given the abiding and well placed love opera audiences have for Ben Heppner, Mr. Griffey had big boots to fill. The audience was in good hands with Griffey. He has performed the role extensively on the international stage and demonstrated a superior grasp of both the theatrical and musical aspects of the role.

In an unusual and rather bold choice on Britten’s part, this opera contains several a capella (unaccompanied) passages. With the significant role of instrumental passages in this work, the unaccompanied portions provide a nice contrast. A lone voice on stage in a venue the size of Four Seasons is a stark and arresting experience. Griffery acquitted himself exceptionally well during these sections.

I especially enjoyed his duet with Ileana Montalbetti in the role of Ellen Orford (Grimes’ love interest) at the end of the prologue. Ms. Montalbetti has a strong instrument with a pleasant, slightly brassy edge that additionally has sufficient suppleness to convey the sweetness and naïveté of her character in this work.

Alan Held returns to the COC in the role of Captain Balstrode, Grimes’ only friend and provider of unsolicited advice. I saw Held perform the role of Simone in A Florentine Tragedy and the title role in Gianni Schicchi and was heartily impressed by his performance. Last night I was once again struck by the robust warmth and resonance of his voice as well as his dramatic flair. I found his performance to be commanding and slightly foreboding in this role.

In my opinion the only weakness of this work is the fairly shallow character development in the libretto. The protagonist has no redeeming qualities and the story does not really leave room for doubt as to the immoral nature of his conduct. The reasons for his tenuous grasp of right from wrong and his propensity for violence are never exposed. Moreover, the motivations behind Ellen Orford’s misguided faith in him are never elucidated. That being said, it is clear that community, rather than individual, morality is the key underlying theme of this work.

This was a truly arresting and provocative production. My companion and I had a lot to talk about after the performance and we were both captivated by Britten’s music.

Details:

  • Peter Grimes is playing until October 26 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on October 8, 11, 17 & 23 with additional matinees on October 20 at 2 PM and October 26 at 4:30 PM.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653)