Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Peter Grimes

Anthony Dean Griffey (photo by Michael Cooper)

by Shannon Christy

Every group of people has a person who does not fit in.  Either their voice is too high, they laugh at the wrong time, or do not laugh at all, do not talk, or talk too much.  If something goes wrong they are the first one suspected.  Peter Grimes is the story about such a person who lives in a small village where his every move is cause for concern by all the good citizens.  It is a difficult and challenging opera because of the vocal range required for the select few who can sing Peter Grimes.  It is an even more challenging piece when your main singer cannot make it on opening night.  Again the COC rose to the challenge by managing to hire star Anthony Dean Griffey who provided the audience with a magnificent performance.

Peter Grimes is about a fisherman who is under suspicion in the death of an apprentice.  He is a loud boorish man with few friends and many enemies.  His sole objective is to work extremely hard so that he can earn enough money to buy his freedom and escape the prying eyes of his fellow villagers by getting a bigger and more isolated house for him and his apprentice.  Unfortunately and the suspicions of his fellow villagers are raised to a fever pitch. 

the absolute star of the performance was Anthony Dean Griffey

Director Neil Armfield succeeds in putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a man they probably do not like.  Whether it is Peter’s attempt to really clear his name for the death of his first apprentice or his inadvertent murder of the second apprentice directly as a result of the lynch mob coming to get him, Mr. Armfield wants the audience to feel bad for Peter.  This is a deliberately frustrating work because it forces the audience members to judge themselves knowing they probably would not have rooted or defended Peter otherwise.

The set by Ralph Myers is a recreation of a community hall or elementary school.  It is an interesting choice because it is a building associated with civic duties and maintaining the community while in this instance it is the venue used to gather enough public opinion to destroy one of their own.  The costumes by Tess Schofield are identical to the 1950’s and this is unfortunate because it would make the piece far more piercing if they were dressed just like us the audience.  

Conductor, Johannes Debus, is a significant contributor to the success of this piece.  Unlike La Bohème where the music is largely used as accompaniment for the vocal performances, the music of Peter Grimes is the co-star and deserves equal billing.  The composition is challenging and the change of tempo can be dramatic.  For instance, in one scene there is a party where the citizens transform from hedonistic pleasures to a quest for justice, at Peter Grimes' expense, culminating in a cacophony of sound with various vocals and instruments doing what sounds like their own thing.  Eventually these sounds unite into a single chorus that demands over and over again to get Peter Grimes.  This is followed by a slow piece consisting of a couple of instruments and percussion that follow one character as he clears the stage.  It is as if you were screaming for help so loud until you tore your vocals and had blood spurting from your throat then decided to hum a delicate tune tapping your toes to get the beat.  These contrasts were delightful and Mr. Debus pulled them off seamlessly. 

However the absolute star of the performance was Anthony Dean Griffey, who plays Peter Grimes.  His vocal range is outstanding and when he reaches his higher notes it pierces your skull like a hot knife through butter.  In Act I at the pub scene when Peter enters he pleads with the village.  Mr. Griffey transforms this simple plea to a dirge that transcends his simple surroundings and asks the rest of the world to accept those who are misunderstood.  His performance was absolutely amazing. 

This uncomfortable show is as perfect today as it was the day it was written. However, you have until the 26th of October to catch this ship before it leaves the harbour.

Peter Grimes continues to October 26

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