The Canadian Opera Company has judiciously chosen a real chestnut (La bohème) and a more complex if less popular work, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, for its fall season. The latter is given a well-sung and directed production despite some faux pas in the set design and the characterization of Grimes by tenor Ben Heppner.

Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013 © Michael Cooper
Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013
© Michael Cooper

Peter Grimes is an orchestral masterpiece that requires superb choral singing and has a richly textured, complex plot. The title role requires a strong tenor voice and a singer with acting ability. Heppner usually has no problem in either category but in this performance, he fell short in his characterization of the hapless man.

Grimes is a fisherman whose young apprentice died during a storm at sea. Even though the death is ruled accidental, the townspeople turn on him. He is a loner, an outsider, who longs to belong to the community in which he is considered a misfit. As a result, he is angry and full of incipient violence as he dreams of making money and being able to marry and belong to his community.

Heppner appears like a roly-poly misfit; he sings well but who displays no anger and no violence. His characterization lacks forcefulness, and a Peter Grimes without those characteristics is incomplete. In fairness, I should mention that Heppner was indisposed for the opening of Peter Grimes on 5 October but took over the role on 8 October and that may have been a factor – or perhaps the original director Neil Armfield (Denni Sayers is the the revival director) simply miscalled the characterization of the opera’s anti-hero.

Bass-baritone Alan Held brought in the strongest performance as Captain Balstrode, the retired skipper. Held provided the vocal vigour that we expected from Heppner as well as a convincing performance as one Grimes’ few friends in the town.

Soprano Ileana Montalbetti was a very well sung and sympathetic Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress that Grimes dreamt of marrying. She exuded sweetness and humanity in the midst of the town mob and was the vision of Grimes’ possible salvation.

There is a marvelous conjunction of emotions and actions at the climax of the opera in Act II. It is a sunny Sunday morning on a street by the sea and we hear a church service in the background. Ellen is comforting the new apprentice. Grimes wants to work him hard, even on a Sunday, in order to make money and win the respect of his community. We hear beautiful bits of the Gloria and Benedicitus as Grimes becomes furious and strikes Ellen. The music grows dissonant, the drums strike ominously as Grimes intones angrily “So be it – and God have mercy upon me.” His fate is sealed in this scene, which was is done splendidly.

There is a silent character of a doctor in the opera, sometimes called Dr Thorp and at other times Dr Crabbe. The libretto is based on George Crabbe’s poem The Borough and Armfield has chosen to name the character like the poet. He uses him as a silent chorus throughout the production. Dr Crabbe sees everything and says nothing, and I found this an interesting approach.

Britten makes major demands on the orchestra and the chorus and here they both performed brilliantly under conductor Johannes Debus.

The production uses a single set designed by Ralph Myers. It consists of a large room that can be an assembly area in a town hall, or be converted into a tavern or a street scene. There is a stage at the back of the room that is brought forward for the scene in Grimes’ hut. The set works well for the other scenes but the hut is supposed to be an upturned boat on the edge of a cliff. In this production, it looks as if Grimes is living on a stage. We lose the effect of the dangerous location of the hut and the inevitable tragedy that results from it.

The latter is a minor glitch, but Heppner’s characterization is a more significant issue. That did not prevent the production form being quite a fascinating staging of a difficult opera.

***11