Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is a tragedy, a magnificent tragedy, but exactly what sort of tragedy is far from clear. Is Grimes, a Suffolk fisherman suspected by his community of foul play in the death of his apprentice, the monster they believe him to be? Or is he a victim of a prejudiced, narrow world unable to tolerate difference? Or is he an artist of sorts, more sensitive and feeling than his neighbours, driven by their suspicions to a form of madness? Even the co-creators of the opera, composer Britten, librettist Montagu Slater and performer Peter Pears, the first to play the role, couldn’t agree on who Grimes is.
It is a tribute to the powerful and excellent COC production of Peter Grimes that opened Saturday night that, at the opera’s chilling end, we’re still not sure. All the purposeful ambiguities of the score and libretto have been left intact, leaving us clues to Grimes’s character, but no certain guide.
American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, heroically stepping into the title role with less than a week’s notice to replace an ailing Ben Heppner, clearly sides with the more sympathetic version of Grimes’s personality. Griffey’s sweet, but powerful tenor presented us a man who was often more sinned against than sinning, but with an undeniable dark side. His Grimes alternated between real tenderness, to powerful disdain, to arrogant and brutal harshness. But, in the end, a man with whom, and for whom, we agonize.
Partly this is the case because of the portrayal of the two characters who provide Grimes with his only comfort in the opera. Alan Held was powerful and persuasive as Captain Balstrode, the one man in town who feels Grimes deserves a chance. And Ileana Montalbetti played a sympathetic Ellen Orford, the women who tries, in vain, to redeem Peter’s implacable intransigence. Montalbetti’s voice could be a bit metallic at times in its higher registers, but she embodied Ellen’s compassionate side with real conviction.
However, it is Britten’s remarkable score which most fully creates the emotional complexity of the work. At once a portrait of the sea, a picture of a harsh, but tender man, facing an equally harsh and frantic community, Grimes’s emotional panorama is captured most clearly in its melodic, creative music. Johannes Debus, conducting his first Grimes, did so with real panache, attention to detail, and great care.
Director Neil Armfield has been quite courageous in his staging of this Grimes, in that he takes this story swept by the bitter winds of the sea and places it all indoors, within one set, the town hall, which looks exactly like every dirty, run-down high-school gym you’ve ever seen. But the gambit works – the set provides enough versatility to render many scenes plausible, and Armfield’s elevation of Dr. Crabbe, a small non-singing role in Britten’s original, to represent an all-seeing author, provides an interesting frame for the evening.
Grimes is a harrowing, dark, yet strangely satisfying evening in the theatre, especially as presented in this excellent COC production. It speaks to our world very directly – it shows us how powerful darkness can be in human life, destroying all in its path. That we are left with some light in our hearts as we leave the theatre is a tribute to the restorative power of art itself.