Heppner as Grimes

It was back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at the COC’s Peter Grimes.  This time Ben Heppner was singing the titled role as scheduled.  Everything else was much the same as opening night and so I’ll just focus on the differences between Tony Dean-Griffey and Ben.  In many ways their interpretations are similar.  They both come across as “gentle giants”; alienated and outside Borough society but not really “brutal and coarse” as the libretto has it.  In both cases the violence offered to Ellen in Act 2 seems to come from nowhere.  The big difference, it seems to me, is that Dean Griffey has the voice to sing that interpretation.  He can float the high notes in Now the Great Bear and Pleiades and What Harbour Shelters Peace in the disturbing and otherwordly manner of a Pears or a Langridge.  Perhaps Heppner once had that quality but if he did it has gone.  What Heppner does have is great acting powers.  The prologue and the final scene were nuanced and compelling and worth the price of admission.  In between he had his moments but he clearly isn’t over the problems that kept him out of opening night and there were a couple of quite jaw dropping moments in the scene in his hut.  None of this stopped the Four Seasons crowd from giving him  a rapturous reception.

Heppner as Grimes

Photo: Michael Cooper courtesy of the COC

Peter Grimes remains a great show with brilliance from the orchestra and chorus, a very fine Balstrode from Alan Held and strong performances from the other soloists.  I’m glad I saw the show with both tenors and I would certainly recommend it highly with either.  There are four more performances between now and October 26th.

What harbour shelters peace?

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.

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Old Ben has gone missing

It’s official.  Tony Dean Griffey will sing the title role in tomorrow night’s opening performance of Peter Grimes at the COC, replacing an indisposed Ben Heppner.  The party line is that Ben will sing the remaining performances.  We will see.  Certainly Tony is scheduled to start a run of Fledermaus in Houston on the 25th and the last Grimes is on the 26th.  This story isn’t over.  Whatever else goes down, let’s hope Ben makes a speedy recovery from whatever ails him.

Heppner out of COC Grimes?

griffeyAnthony Dean Griffey was flown into Toronto yesterday to replace Ben Heppner in the final dress rehearsal of the COC’s Peter Grimes which opens on Saturday.  There has been no official announcement of a cast change but I’m making enquiries.  Reports from the dress say that the einspringer was splendid.

This in from the COC… “Yes, it’s true that Anthony Dean-Griffey sang the dress rehearsal. Ben wasn’t feeling well and since he knows the role so well, he was resting up for opening night.”

Four decades of Peter Grimes

Having now had a chance to watch and review all seven currently available video recordings of Peter Grimes I thought I might do a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of each. All of them have some merit and I doubt that there would be consensus on a “winner”. Anyway, here goes…

BBC film 1969
Grimes – Peter Pears
Conductor – Benjamin Britten
Director – Joan Cross & Brian Large

This is an essential historical document with both composer and the creator of the role involved. The production is straightforward and naturalistic. The sound and video quality is surprisingly good for the period. It does, though, leave one with the feeling that there is more to the role of Grimes than Pears finds.

Royal Opera House 1981
Grimes – Jon Vickers
Conductor – Colin Davis
Director – Elijah Moshinsky

Also a historical landmark being the first major production where Grimes wasn’t sung by Peter Pears. It has the excellent Heather Harper as Ellen Orford. The production is quite dull and very dimly lit. Vickers’ Grimes is controversial. In places he sounds fantastic and in others sorely taxed. His acting is oddly stilted. Norman Bailey fails to convince as Balstrode.  Sound and picture quality are OK.

English National Opera 1994
Grimes – Philip Langridge
Conductor – David Atherton
Director – Tim Albery

This is the production with most sense of the sea as a character brought out through innovative use of video projection. Langridge’s Grimes is intense, convincing and beautifully sung. Alan Opie is a very strong Balstrode. Unfortunately the orchestra and chorus aren’t up to rival versions and all aspects of the DVD; video direction, sound quality and picture quality are rather poor.

Opernhaus Zürich 2005
Grimes – Christopher Ventris
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Director – David Pountney

This is a very fine and thought provoking production with any number of magical moments. Ventris is a first class Grimes combining power and sensitivity and the supporting performances all have merit, save perhaps for Alfred Muff’s sub-par Balstrode. The orchestra and chorus are quite superb. The performance gets a thoroughly sympathetic treatment on DVD with good video directing backed up by quite excellent sound and picture quality.

Metropolitan Opera 2008
Grimes – Anthony Dean Griffey
Conductor – Donald Runnicles
Director – John Doyle

This is a rather dull and dark production given a very eccentric treatment by the video director. Dean Griffey is a lyrical and sympathetic Grimes well backed up by the supporting cast, especially Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode and Teddy Tahu-Rhodes as Ned Keene. The orchestra and chorus are excellent and Runnicles is fairly convincing though the first act drags a bit. The sound and picture quality is excellent.

La Scala, 2012
2.theboarGrimes: John Graham-Hall
Conductor: Robin Ticciati
Director: Richard Jones

Richard Jones’ production, updated to the 1980s, is quirky. John Graham-Hall is quite lyrical as Grimes but slips into pseudo speech a lot. Susan Gritton fails to convince as Ellen Orford. The supporting cast, the orchestra and the conducting are first rate but the chorus is decidedly sub-par. The Blu-ray sound and picture outclasses all previous versions but, overall, this recording fails to convince.

Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, 2013
1.prologueGrimes: Allan Oke
Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: Tim Albery/Margaret Williams

This film is a record of the unique production staged on Aldeburgh beach by Tim Albery and filmed by Margaret Williams. It’s highly atmospheric and features a brilliant performance by Alan Oke but conditions were not ideal for the singers and musically this cannot match the best available recordings from the theatre.

The Met’s Peter Grimes

I liked the 2008 MetHD broadcast of Britten’s Peter Grimes enough to buy the DVD as soon as it came out. After something of a hiatus I just watched it again.

It’s an odd production. The director (Tony award winning – run for the hills) John Doyle, was the first to use, I think, what has now become a Met cliché; a wall with windows running the whole width and height of the set. In this case it can be moved forward and back but mostly it’s forward compressing the depth of the stage. The idea is to convey the claustrophobic nature of the Borough which is fair enough but mostly what it does it confine the enormous chorus to a space it barely fits in meaning there are few options but to have it face straight forward in serried ranks and sing. To be fair, there are scenes where it’s very effective; the opening inquest scene for example and “Peter, we’ve come to take you home” in Act 3. It’s much less successful in, for example, the pub scene. The production is also very dark. This always bothers me because despite eating vast quantities of carrots my night vision isn’t great. I don’t really get it.

Dark as a metaphor is pretty blatant and comes at a heavy cost in terms of the production’s ability to convey anything else. Only at the end, in the final chorus, is the wall removed and the stage lit less funereally. The sea interludes are played out in front of a blank wall. No effort is made to give them visual accompaniment. The “wall” and the naked Interludes both tend to banish the sea from the production. There’s really no sense that the Borough is a fishing village and therefore the whole role that the sea plays in the psyche of people who make their living from it is lost.

The video director, Gary Halvorson, appears either to hate the production or think that the cinema/DVD audience is too thick to get it because he relentlessly undermines it. Unable to present the dark, stark stage that Doyle has called for he gives us a compilation of super closeups and really weird camera angles; pointing up from the side of the pit, pointing down from what looks like the cheapest seats at the outermost edge of Ring 4 and so on. He also can’t accept that the director doesn’t want to distract from the music during the Interludes so we get a succession of close ups on audio members and, more especially, on conductor Donald Runnicles. This is particularly unfortunate as Runnicles conducts like a hyperactive and self regarding pterodactyl.

The above got over with there’s much to like in this DVD set. The performances are generally very good. Tony Dean Griffey is a highly effective Peter Grimes as well as singing very well. He’s close to Peter Pears in his almost dreamy interpretation. He lacks the intensity of Langridge or the brutality of Vickers but its a valid and compelling portrayal. Anthony Michaels-Moore almost steals the show as Balstrode. This is surely the best take on the role since Geraint Evans. The sense that he’s the one man who really wants to help Grimes but knows when enough is enough is overwhelming. There are good performances in the other male roles especially from Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Ned Keene. The women are more of a mixed bag. I still can’t really get into Patricia Racette’s Ellen Orford. She acts well and is sometimes very lyrical but at other times she seems shrill and her vibrato too much for my taste. The Auntie of Jill Groves though is really good. Even toned and with a suitably cynical but not unkind persona she nails the role. The Mrs. Sedley of the timeless(1) Felicity Palmer is also quite excellent. She’s acid without being unmusical and not at all caricature like. Donald Runnicles takes things at a generally rather leisurely pace which makes the first act in particular drag a bit but the tension does build and there’s no disputing the beauty of the orchestral playing. The chorus is excellent throughout.

Technically it’s a typical DVD transfer of a MetHD broadcast. The picture quality is very good and the DTS 5.1 sound is excellent (LPCM also available). There are subtitles in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. There’s a track listing, synopsis and unhelpful essay printed in English (French and German versions in PDF on the disk). The interval features are typical but livened up a bit by Natalie Dessay who seems more willing to go off script than the other Met regulars (probably why she no longer seems to appear).

Bottom line, it’s good but I’m still searching for the ultimate DVD Grimes.

fn1 timeless as in I saw the, then, Ms. Palmer sing Pamina the month after I saw Vickers sing Grimes in 1975

Curiously bland Brecht/Weill

Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is an awkward work for an opera company. It’s been said, rightly I think, that one can/must situate it in a triangle of which the vertices are opera, musical theatre and Brechtian theatre. John Doyle’s 2007 production for Los Angeles Opera is strong on the opera and musical theatre dimensions but decidedly unBrechtian. Despite a good idiomatic translation by Michael Feingold this production seems unwilling to skewer capitalism in the manner Brecht intended. It’s the polar opposite of the Salzburg recording that left no Marxist cliche unexplored. Maybe it’s a failure of nerve. Maybe capitalism in LA is already such a parody of itself that further skewering is impossible. Who knows? Even Act 2, which is all about the commoditization of basic human pleasures doesn’t really fire. Sure we get excess and commoditized sex but there’s no sense that the commoditization is dehumanising or transgressive. Sex for sale? Of course! It does get a bit darker in the final act with the trial and execution of Jimmy and finishes strongly on “Still we only built this Mahagonny” but by then it’s very much too little, too late. The lack of edge is reinforced by the orchestra under James Conlon. It’s all just too civilized. There’s none of the spiky dissonance one is used to in the score and the brass, in particular, sound like they are playing in the Palm Court of the Hilton.

It’s a shame because the singing performances are mostly very good. The leading female roles are played by Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald who both have Broadway backgrounds. LuPone sounds like that’s where she’s from too though McDonald manages a much wider range and pretty much steals the show. It helps that she is very good looking and practically naked. The guys are mostly from opera backgrounds; notably Anthony Dean Griffey as Jimmy McIntyre and Donnie Ray Albert as Trinity Moses. Both sing well and idiomatically. The sets are sort of Vegas lite with none of the inexplicable weirdness of the Salzburg production but not much interest either. Again things look up a bit in the last act with effective use of a giant video screen in the trial scene and moving slogans over the finale. Blocking is very Broadway, especially the big chorus numbers that look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Brecht and Weill.

Video direction is by Gary Halvorson and it’s judicious. There’s often not much set to look at so we might as well have close ups of Ms. McDonald. The technical package is solid. The picture is high quality 16:9. The sound choices are PCM stereo, DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1. The last is nicely balanced and clear There are French, German and Spanish subtitles. There’s a useful essay in the booklet which gives full track listings and a 20 minute interview with the director.