Peter Grimes – Benjamin Britten
Four Seasons Theatre, Toronto
8 October 2013.
Opera Australia’s 2009 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes by Neil Armfield was a co-production with the West Australian Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. The Canadians have delayed showing the production until this year and it is now their contribution to the commemoration of the centenary of Britten’s birth.
It is interesting to observe how Armfield’s production, revived by Denni Sayers, has been realised in Toronto. The Four Seasons Theatre is an attractive building with pleasantly spacious multi-level foyers. The auditorium is larger than the Joan Sutherland Theatre, seating 2000, and there have been losses as well as gains.
The main loss is that Ralph Myer’s meeting hall set which is retained throughout the opera has lost the oppressive, claustrophobic feeling which it had on the constricted Sydney stage. Instead it now looks more like a nondescript school hall. The lighting also misses creating the repressive atmosphere; the lighting of the storm scene is completely unconvincing.
The major gain in the larger Toronto theatre is its open pit which allows the fine playing of the COC orchestra to resound freely in the auditorium’s fine acoustics. Johannes Debus’s sympathetic conducting shaped the orchestra most sensitively and the orchestral climax just before Grimes’ final entry was overwhelming.
The title role was sung by Canadian veteran Ben Heppner who has performed it at the New York Metropolitan, and other prestigious houses, but this was his first performance in Canada. Last week he was unfortunately ill and both the dress rehearsal and opening night were sung at very short notice by the American Anthony Dean Griffey (who has been heard in Australia in the role of Lenny in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men). Thus the second performance of the season on 8 October was actually Heppner’s first performance of the role in Canada. It was highly dramatic and Heppner judiciously captured both the sympathetic and the insensitive sides of Grimes’ character. Vocally, however, he was still unwell which frequently affected both his tone and pitch.
The supporting characters in the performance were all well performed, particularly Alan Held as Balstrode and Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford. The Canadian Chorus was as strong, accurate and dramatically involved as their OA counterparts.
Peter Grimes is an opera that is emotionally overwhelming in a good performance and it is pleasing to see that the excellent production previously seen in Sydney is now being enjoyed in Toronto.
Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©
Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London. He is an avid attendee of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music. He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel. He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.