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Ensemble

Unique Sonorities

Britten's 'Peter Grimes',
heard by MARIA NOCKIN

 

Benjamin Britten and his companion, Peter Pears, spent part of World War II in the United States. During a stay in Escondido, California, Britten became interested in the subject of Peter Grimes, the English fisherman, when he read a magazine article that discussed George Crabbe's early nineteenth century poem, The Borough. Pears located the actual poem in a Los Angeles rare bookstore and Britten began to consider making the scenario for an opera from it. He and Pears worked on it, using characters from Crabbe's poem but often changing their lines.

Peter, for example, is an evil, sadistic brute in the poem but a much more ambiguous figure in the opera. The composer wanted his audience to be able to make up their own minds as to his guilt. Realizing that an experienced librettist would be needed, Britten called upon poet, novelist and playwright Montagu Slater. From that point, all three men worked to make the characters stageworthy and their lines among the most beautiful in the English language.

From left to right in the foreground, Priya Palekar and Priti Gandhi as the nieces and Rod Gilfry as Captain Balstrode in San Diego Opera's production of 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
From left to right in the foreground, Priya Palekar and Priti Gandhi as the nieces and Rod Gilfry as Captain Balstrode in San Diego Opera's production of 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

The opera, which had been commissioned by the Serge and Natalie Koussevitzki Foundation, was originally slated for the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts. However, because Britten and Pears returned to the United Kingdom long before the work was finished and transport to the States was difficult at that time, the première of Peter Grimes took place in London's Sadlers Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945. With Peter Pears singing the title role, opera company director Joan Cross portraying the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, and Reginald Goodall conducting, it was a resounding success that received lavish praise from audience and critics alike.

Rod Gilfry (left) as Captain Balstrode and Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of San Diego Opera's production of 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Rod Gilfry (left) as Captain Balstrode and Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of San Diego Opera's production of 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

On 21 April 2009, San Diego Opera presented Britten's Peter Grimes in a production by British director John Copley. Copley had actually begun his stage career by playing the apprentice in the 1949 Covent Garden production of the opera. Thus, he knows this opera backwards and forwards. All his characters were real and their actions made sense. Many of them were similar to people we all know. Peter may have been a little more of a brute here than in some productions I have seen, but until the last act he seemed more misguided than deliberately mean spirited.

Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

The traditional, realistic sets by Carl Toms were extremely detailed. Not every facet could be seen from every seat, but the scenery allowed for the exploration of every word in the libretto. Gary Marder's lighting added a great deal to the seaside atmosphere. The costumes by Tanya Moseiwitsch put the stage picture firmly in the distant past and delineated the social class of each wearer.

Judith Christin as the publican Auntie in 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Judith Christin as the publican Auntie in 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Anthony Dean Griffey is a large man with a powerful ringing voice. As such, he easily embodied the concept of the strong fisherman who tends to keep to himself. Griffey is an expert at conveying character, both physically and vocally. He easily won the audience over with his ability to sing with tenderness as well as with passion. His aria 'Now the Great Bear and Pleiades' was just one example of his fine command of Britten's style.

Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes with Spike Sommers as apprentice John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes with Spike Sommers as apprentice John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

As Ellen Orford, Jennifer Casey Cabot sang with a sweet lyric sound. Although her voice was nowhere near as powerful as Griffey's, her tones were easily heard and she was a most fitting love interest. Judith Christin was an outgoing, believable tavern owner with a dusky burnished timbre. Her sultry 'nieces', Priya Palekar and Priti Gandhi, sang in exquisitely clear harmonies. Together, these four women formed a delightful quartet, the origin of which might have something to do with Britten having once immersed himself in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

Jennifer Casey Cabot as Ellen Orford and Spike Sommers as John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Jennifer Casey Cabot as Ellen Orford and Spike Sommers as John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Rod Gilfry was an incisive Balstrode and John del Carlo was a resonant, swaggering Swallow, while Greg Fedderly was a gruff but sympathetic Bob Boles. As Mrs Sedley, the town gossip and laudanum addict, Janice Meyerson created a recognizable, if not lovable, character. Smooth-voiced Kristopher Irmiter seemed to be having an infectiously good time as Ned Keene. Andrew Collis, who sang with a robust tone, was a notable Town Crier and Constable while Spike Sommers was hauntingly vulnerable as the boy, John.

Greg Fedderly as Bob Boles (centre) with the San Diego Opera chorus in 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Greg Fedderly as Bob Boles (centre) with the San Diego Opera chorus in 'Peter Grimes'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

The chorus is a major part of this opera and Chorus Master Timothy Todd Simmons drew a glorious, nuanced lyric performance from his singers. British conductor Steuart Bedford actually knew Britten and has an encyclopedic knowledge of his works. He demanded a great deal from the members of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and was rewarded with an elegant, translucent rendition of Britten's unique sonorities. It takes a few hearings for any audience to really embrace new music. Thus, this opera from the 1940s is just now beginning to catch on in Southern California, where its creator first envisioned it.

Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes and Spike Sommers as John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes and Spike Sommers as John. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

 

Copyright © 3 May 2009 Maria Nockin,
Arizona USA

-------

BENJAMIN BRITTEN

PETER PEARS

WORLD WAR II

CALIFORNIA

PETER GRIMES

LOS ANGELES

LONDON

JOAN CROSS

ELLEN ORFORD

REGINALD GOODALL

SAN DIEGO OPERA

JOHN COPLEY

ANTHONY DEAN GRIFFEY

JUDITH CHRISTIN

PRITI GANDHI

GREG FEDDERLY

BOB BOLES

MRS SEDLEY

NED KEENE

TIMOTHY TODD SIMMONS

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

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