by Lynn on October 27, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

Peter Grimes

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. Music by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by Montagu Slater. Based on the poem, The Borough by George Crabbe. Conducted by Johannes Debus. Directed by Neil Armfield. Revival Director, Denni Sayers. Set by Ralph Meyers. Costumes by Tess Schofield. Lighting by Damien Cooper. Starring: Judith Christin, Tom Corbeil, Jill Grove, Alan Held, Ben Heppner, Roger Honeywell, Jakob Janutka, Ileana Montalbetti.

Produced by the Canadian Opera Company.

Opera is not my forte, so I’m not focusing on the music of Peter Grimes. I’m focusing on the theatricality of this gripping, unsettling production, which I was only able to see on its last performance (today, Oct. 26). I’ll also be discussing the production on Tuesday, Oct. 29 on “Classical Underground” with Philip Conlon at noon on CIUT 89.5 fm.

Benjamin Britten wrote the opera in about 1945 (it was first produced in that year at the Sadlers Wells Theatre). He set it in an east coast English fishing village (similar to his home town of Aldeburgh) in 1830.

Peter Grimes, a fisherman, appears at an inquest into the death of his young apprentice. The townsfolk loathe him; think he’s guilty of murdering the boy, and want him punished. Swallow, the lawyer, gives Grimes a break and feels there is not enough evidence to convict; finds that the boy died of an accident; but warns Grimes not to work with another apprentice again.

Peter Grimes is not satisfied that he did not get a chance to defend himself and tell what happened (they were at see without water for days and the boy died of thirst). He also says he cannot fish without help. The schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, offers to go to the workhouse to get a boy for Peter and take care of him until he goes fishing with Peter.

This seems acceptable. During a raging storm, Ellen brings the boy, named John, to the local pub. Not wanting to waste a minute, Peter takes him back to his hut. On Sunday morning, John is in his Sunday best clothes. Ellen notices that he his hand is around his neck, trying to hide a bruise. Ellen becomes suspicious and confronts Peter who hits her and takes the boy off to fish. The townsfolk get wind of this violence and go to Peter’s hut to confront him.

He tells the boy they are going fishing. He ties a rope around his waist to guide him down the cliff from his hut but unfortunately Peter lets go of the rope and the boy falls down the cliff and dies.

When the mob reaches Peter’s hut it’s empty but orderly. They leave thinking nothing is wrong. But Peter’s friend Balstrode looks over the cliff and is shocked to see the body of the boy below.

The boy’s jersey that Ellen knitted is found on the rocks below. There is no body. When Peter returns from fishing he is obviously unhinged. Once again, the mob comes after him. Balstrode urges Peter to take his boat out into the sea and sink it. The implication is clear.

The next day the townsfolk go about their business. There are reports of a boat capsizing but no one notices and things move on as if nothing has happened.

A young boy being pulled out of the workhouse to be an apprentice in England in 1830 is nothing out of the ordinary. This is the England of Charles Dickens where child labour was common. Dickens himself left school at a very early age to work because his family was in debtor’s prison and Dickens was the only one left who could work and pay off his family’s debts.

But director Neil Armfield has set his production just after WWII in that little fishing village. Today’s audience brings all sorts of unsettling references to inform the story. Our headlines are full of reports of child abuse and pedophilia. There is reference in Montagu Slater’s libretto of John being ‘workhouse starved.’ Shades of the recent horrible story of a young boy being starved to death while in his grandparents’ care and the Children’s Aid not doing due diligence in checking if the grandparents were fit to take care of him or not.

Armfield has raised the squirm factory considerably by updating the time period.

Armfield has also added another character who is silent but always present, overseeing the proceedings. He is George Crabbe the 19th Century poet who wrote the poem, The Burrough, the source material for the opera. He watches with stillness and compassion at his creations,  as his characters, go about their business.

From the beginning, Armfield creates that compassion of the poet for his flawed Peter Grimes. Crabbe walks beside Peter as he enters the room where the inquest is being held. Crabbe is in a modern suit while the rest wear clothes appropriate for just after WWII. The angry townsfolk fill the room, their loathing of Peter is apparent. When Peter sits down, Crabbe puts his hand on his shoulder and pats it twice and keeps it there for several seconds, giving him support. That simple gesture speaks volumes.

The set by Ralph Meyers of the village community hall or Auntie’s tavern ,looks like a school auditorium with a stage up at the back. This creates a sense of size, but I find it odd that so much activity happens upstage. There is a sense of distance in these cases when I would have thought would be more beneficial to have the action right in our face. The transition of the large hall to Peter’s small hut is impressive. George Crabbe silently clears the scene of chairs, goes upstage standing in front of the back wall, when it starts to move slowly downstage. The juxtaposition of that man in front of that huge back wall, slowly moving downstage gives a sense of being over powered. The end result is a hut that looks very cramped, which is what is needed.

The front curtain of a stormy presence is evocative of the anger we are about to witness both from the townsfolk and the weather. Damien Cooper’s compelling lighting adds to the feeling of unsettled animosity.

You get every frustrating, angry sense of what Peter Grimes is going through from Ben Heppner’s raging, moody performance. With a touch of arrogant impatience we see a man hated and hounded by his insensitive neighbours.

While the poem, The Borough, suggests that Peter rebelled against his hard working, observant father, the Montagu Slater’s libretto doesn’t explain why or why Grimes seemed so crazed and angry at all concerned. The townsfolk also hated him. Again, I would have liked the libretto to fill me in on why as well. Perhaps in opera one suspends ones disbelief more than in theatre.

As the tender and understanding Ellen Orford, Ileana Montalbetti conveys Ellen’s goodness and concern with simplicity and spareness. And when she realizes what Balstrode is suggesting to Peter when he tells him to take the boat out and sink it, Montalbetti sinks to the floor and leans over in despair. Both Armfield and his leading lady know how to squeeze a heart.

To this ear, untrained in opera, the singing sounded glorious. And the chorus gets special Kudos. They are like a well oiled and perfectly running emotional machine. Terrific, unsettling experience which is what is expected of Peter Grimes.


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