La Scena Musicale

Monday, 7 October 2013

Anthony Dean Griffey and COC Orchestra Magnificent in Peter Grimes

Anthony Dean Griffey, Orchestra and Chorus Stunning in COC Peter Grimes

- Joseph So

October 5th 2013 / Four Seasons Centre
Anthony Dean Griffey (Peter Grimes)
Alan Held (Balstrode)
Ileana Montalbetti (Ellen Orford)
Robert Pomakov (Hobson)
Judith Christin (Mrs. Sedley)
Jill Grove (Auntie)
Claire de Sevigne (First Niece)
Danielle MacMillan (Second Niece)
Peter Barrett (Ned Keene)
Roger Honeywell (Bob Boles)
Owen McCausland (Horace Adams)
Tom Corbeil (Swallow)
Jakob Janutka (Apprentice)
Thomas Hauff (Dr. Crabbe)

Johannes Debus / conductor
Neil Armfield / director
Denni Sayers / revival director
Ralph Myers / set designer
Sandra Horst / chorus master

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913- 1976), and in celebration of the British composer, the COC is presenting his best known opera, Peter Grimes. It was last staged ten years ago, still in the old Hummingbird Centre, in an excellent ENO production directed by Tim Albery. It starred American Robert Brubaker, but this time around we have Canada's own Ben Heppner.  A bout of vocal cord inflammation sidelined him for opening night, and COC was fortunate to engage American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who consented to sing the dress rehearsal and the opening performance - I will have more to say later on in this review. With three acts and two intermissions, the opera lasted three plus hours. The Four Seasons Centre was full but not quite sold out, and the audience was peppered with young people, a good sign! The reception was extremely warm at the end, the audience very appreciative of what they had seen on stage, and in particular tenor Griffey's galvanizing performance and the great orchestra and chorus under COC Music Director Johannes Debus. Peter Grimes is a connoisseur's piece and it will never sell like a La boheme, or have the mass appeal of a Carmen or La traviata. But for those willing to be receptive to it, this COC run is the perfect opportunity to experience its magic. 

The Grimes set designed by Ralph Myers (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The current production comes from Opera Australia/Houston Grand Opera/West Australian Opera, directed by Neil Armfield.  (It should be noted that this revival is directed by Denni Sayers.) In the Director's Notes printed in the program, Armfield points out that Britten's score vividly describes musically the "landscape, weather, light and atmosphere...almost visually creating the world that surrounds his characters."  Those familiar with the opera will agree that a lot of what's great about Grimes is Britten's highly individual harmonic language and his atmospheric orchestration through which one gets strong imageries of nature. Yet Armfield has chosen to stay away from a representational approach in the stage design. Set in some sort of a school assembly hall, it's visually far removed from the Aldeburgh beach that this production is said to be located. Nature is hinted at, as in the wind, rain and shifting light seen through the windows in the act one storm scene.  To this reviewer, what is depicted on stage is so far removed from naturalism that one would say it's counterproductive when it comes to an appreciation of the genius of Britten's score. And having the additional character of Dr. Crabbe wandering on and off the stage, particularly during the musical interludes, only serves to distract the audience from focusing on the music. While one appreciates Armfield's rationale for incorporating Dr. Crabbe into the proceedings, and to present the piece as part of the rehearsal process, I feel that such directorial decisions may work better in straight theatre than in opera, and in any case are more "intellectual statements" than decisions that truly enhance or illuminate the music or the text, for the benefit of those attending the performance.    

Peter Grimes (tenor Anthony Dean Griffey) in his "mad scene" (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Peter Grimes as an opera stands or falls with the tenor who sings the protagonist. Last seen at the COC ten years ago with Robert Brubaker, I remember at the time there were grumblings that however fine Mr. Brubaker was, it should have been Canada's own Ben Heppner singing his signature role in his adopted home town of Toronto. So there was much rejoicing when Heppner was announced last winter. Sadly, a case of vocal cords inflammation meant that Heppner had to withdraw from both the dress rehearsal and opening night, and COC flew in Anthony Dean Griffey, to many the finest interpreter of Grimes today.  I have always enjoyed the work of Griffey, ever since experiencing his incredibly heart-felt Lenny in Carlyle Floyd's Of Mice and Men in Glimmerglass (1997). Playing a mentally challenged young man, Griffey's inspired performance reduced me to tears. With maturity, he has become a celebrated Grimes.  "Magnificent" is the only word to describe his performance on Oct 5th. To me, Griffey has truly embodied the role, and he plays Grimes as a mentally disturbed man, dissociated from reality and hearing voices in his head. Vocally it was a stunning achievement, in one of the hardest roles in the heroic tenor repertoire. He sang with unflagging energy and was not afraid to throw his big body around the stage, altogether a most impressive performance. At the end, the ovation from the audience was one of the biggest in memory. 

Ileana Montalbetti (Ellen Orford) and Alan Held (Balstrode) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Former COC Ensemble soprano Ileana Montalbetti was a sympathetic and unusually youthful Ellen. She sang strongly on opening night, producing a bright sound, although one would have liked a bit more warmth and a wider range of colours to her tone, especially at the top of the stave. Vocally, her finest moment was her last line in the opera - "Peter, we've come to take you home" beautifully sung dolcissimo, with unforced purity.  While Montalbetti has sung it during her conservatory days, this Ellen was an auspicious professional role debut. Veteran bass baritone Alan Held, a wonderful Schicchi and Kurwenal, makes a welcome return as a superb Balstrode in every way. This is an ensemble opera with very finely drawn character roles. I am pleased to say everyone was up to the task. Particularly impressive were the sonorous Mr. Hobson of bass Robert Pomakov, the plangent tones of tenor Owen McCausland as Horace Adams, the burly baritone of Peter Barrett as Ned Keene, and the impressive Bob Boles of Roger Honeywell, who is also covering the title role. Claire de Sevigny and Danielle MacMillan were excellent as the pair of "Nieces" and I would be remiss if I forget to mention the Miss Marple-like Mrs. Sedley of veteran comprimaria Judith Christin, a singer I heard numerous times at the Santa Fe Opera. Her portrayal of this meddlesome old lady is a bit too much of a caricature, but it worked. For a mid- 20th Century century work, the structure of Grimes is really quite traditional, with arias, duets, ensembles and musical interludes etc. There were many musical highlights this evening, but I want to single out the quartet by the women (the two nieces plus Auntie and Ellen), the opening scene with Hobson, the little monologue of Horace Adams in act 3, and of course the emotionally galvanizing Mad Scene by the wonderful Anthony Dean Griffey.

Ellen Orford (Ileana Montalbetti) with John the Apprentice (Jakob Janutka) Photo: Michael Cooper

Arguably the highest praise should be reserved for the magnificent orchestra under COC Music Director Johannes Debus. I had the great good fortune of an excellent seat a few rows behind the conductor so I was able to observe his work the whole evening. It's fascinating to see his conducting, not just the orchestra but giving cues to the singers. Though this was his first Grimes, he conducted with great precision and authority, with brisk but not rushed tempo and a powerful sense of drama. The chorus is absolutely vital in this work and the COC Chorus sounded fantastic and acted with great commitment. It was a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. Six more performances (Oct. 8 - 26) Details at

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  • I totally agreed with your excellent and detailed review. I loved the " from the gutter" quartet, but feel that placing the four singers close together woulld have created a blended sound that would have enhanced this gorgeous music.

    By Blogger Len Klochek, At 8 October 2013 at 00:18  

  • I totally agreed with your excellent and detailed review. I loved the " from the gutter" quartet, but feel that placing the four singers close together woulld have created a blended sound that would have enhanced this gorgeous music.

    By Blogger Len Klochek, At 8 October 2013 at 00:20  

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