Readers of this blog will likely know that Peter Grimes is a very special opera for me. I’ve watched it live and on recordings a lot. I think about it a lot troo so the chance to see it live is rather special. It’s even more special when it’s done as well as at the Four Seasons Centre last night in the opening performance of a new run of Neil Armfield’s much travelled production, revived here by Denni Sayers.
He sets the piece around the time of its composition which works well enough. Even in the 1970s that part of Suffolk had changed little from the era in which Crabbe’s poem is set. It’s set in a sparse space that might be a village hall with a stage area at the back. There are a few tables and chairs, frequently rearranged, and, at times, a few nets and ropes make an appearance. For the scene in Grimes’ hut. The stage area moves from back to front of stage to reveal a very conventional representation of Grimes’ hut. The Konzept, if there really is one, is to introduce Dr. Crabbe as a, silent, character. Armfield notes that the libretto does reference Crabbe in a couple of places and expands on this to show the creator of the story as if he’s directing and judging a performance in the village hall. It verges on cliché theatre within a theatre but mercifully never quite descends there. Dr. Crabbe aside, the direction is excellent. Each character is clearly delineated and plays a distinct role in the life of the Borough. Movement, especially of the chorus and some supernumerary boys, is well thought out, often strikingly menacing and beautifully sensitive to the movement. The relationships of the central trio and the boy are believable and intense. It’s fine theatre.
There are some very fine singing performances across the board. So good, in fact, one wants to list them all from Owen McCausland’s Horace Adams (surely the youngest person to sing this role on a major stage) through Judith Christin, as Mrs. Sedley, scuttling hither and yon like a malevolent black beetle. Tom Corbeil was simply the best Swallow I’ve heard. He didn’t ham things up but sang his lines straight and lyrically and was all the more effective for it. Bob Pomakov was a powerful and charismatic Hobson and Roger Honeywell quite lyrical as Bob Boles (will he sing the title on the 26th if Heppner isn’t recovered?). Peter Barrett was a fine, well characterised, Ned Keene and Jill Groves was more credible as a Suffolk landlady and lesss like a madam than some I have seen. Claire de Sévigné and Danielle MacMillan were suitably decorative; visually and vocally, as the ‘nieces’.
Moving onto the central drama, Alan Held played Balstrode more as bluff sea dog than maritime philosopher which suits his powerful voice and strong physical presence. He also pulled off the tricky final scene very effectively. Ileana Montalbetti was making her debut as Ellen Orford. She’s been landing some decent roles but Ellen Orford at COC is a pretty big step up for her. She did well. She’s an accomplished actress and handled that side of things very well, again pulling out just the right stops in the final scene so that tragedy never descended into melodrama. Her voice is interesting. The top end is quite dry, occasionally verging on shrill, but the middle and lower registers are gorgeously rich and powerful and she has enough oomph to soar above the orchestra. The Embroidery aria was very fine. And then there was Tony Dean Griffey, standing in, as predicted, for the indisposed Ben Heppner. He was the crowning glory of the night with a gorgeously sung, nuanced performance from the moment we first hear him take the oath to the broken man shuffling off to his death in Act 3. All the big tricky scenes were masterful. The Great Bear and Pleiades was gorgeous and the mad scene riveting. Terrific stuff. Of course one can’t have a Grimes without an apprentice and Jakob Janotka played his part very adequately.
Peter Grimes is very much a chorus opera and Sandra Horst’s fine chorus were very much on song. The “Peter Grimes… Peter Grimes… Grimes!” that closes Act 3 Scene 1 was blood curdling and the final chorus beautiful and devastating. Fine, fine singing all through. The orchestra too was in fine form and conductor Johannes Debus definitely had his own take on the score. One might argue that he sacrificed some lyricism for drama in fairly fast, driven versions of the first couple of interludes but that’s bordering on nit picking. What was certain is that, as always, he was working with, not against, the stage director to create some really compelling music theatre.