Tom’s Review: Anthony Dean Griffey Wows San Diego In a Riveting “Peter Grimes” – April 24, 2009

San Diego Opera had only presented Benjamin Britten’s ultimate masterpiece “Peter Grimes” in one previous season, 25 years ago. Its revival, again utilizing Carl Toms’ sets, returned for the 2009 Season, hugely enriched with American lyric tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. More than  “starring” as Peter Grimes, Griffey dynamically personalized this gritty role, living it and making it his own.  

[Below: Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of  the San Diego Opera.]

He was accompanied by a stellar cast well suited for this very emotionally moving work – which I believe is without any doubt Britain’s greatest opera. But Mr Griffey had just done “Peter Grimes” at the Met in 2008 which many of us (including me) saw in the Met theaters “near us” in their grossly minimalist production (like their mounting of Richard Jones’ production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel”), in which he also garnered thunderous applause.

San Diego Opera’s stage production was, most happily, the total opposite of minimalist. Some of us feel this piece requires every nuance of visual inspiration provided by the salt-air sea, foghorns, the “Boar” pub, the ambience of the waterfront .  .   .   .

The sets were those of the late Carl Toms, and were created (and funded by Iowa’s Gramma Fisher Foundation) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera in 1973. The costumes were from the Met, with all these elements working very well together for a salt-air, moody, theatrical presentation.  

[Below: part of Carl Toms’ sets for Peter Grimes; above Auntie (Judith Christin) and the Apothecary (Kristopher Irmiter) share thoughts about Grimes (Anthony Dean Griffey, below); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.] 

The opera is dominated by the chorus’ many striking numbers, like the chanting of Grimes is at his exercise when the villagers hear Grimes is making his new boy-apprentice work on a Sunday!

The remarkable cast included frequent San Diego Opera guest artists. Well known American bass-baritone John Del Carlo appeared in the nifty role of Swallow, a lawyer is who the local village-mayor and coroner.

[Below: John del Carlo as Swallow; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

World-class comedienne-actress-singer Judith Christin as Auntie (she did this role at San Diego Opera 25 years ago in 1984) – the landlady (i.e. madame) of the local pub, The Boar, in which much of the story evolves. Auntie is a perfect role for Christin’s classic antics.   
Los Angeles’ homegrown super-star Rod Gilfrey was an iron-firm but compassionate (and I felt extremely effective) Captain Balstrode – a retired merchant sailing-skipper. Jennifer Cabot was Grimes’ erstwhile ladyfriend Ellen Orford – the widowed schoolmistress of the town, whom Grimes dreams of marrying when he’s sufficiently prosperous to do so.  
[Below: Captain Balstrode (Rodney Gilfrey) talks with Ellen Orford (Jennifer Cabot); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Los Angeles Opera’s now-appearing-everywhere  character tenor, Greg Fedderly made a long overdue San Diego Opera debut as Bob Boles  (a fisherman cum-evangelist preacher) – having just come from doing a screaming-slapstick Monostatos in LA Opera’s recent adorable production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” reviewed by your website host William.
Renowned Benjamin Britten interpreter-conductor was UK’s Steuart Bedford – a longtime associate and friend of Benjamin Britten (how much more authenticity do you want?) who was sensational par excellence at the baton for this production, keeping the action going. This piece does not tolerate a slow pace – and Bedford’s pace was just right. Bedford’s done “Peter Grimes” throughout the world, and did Britten’s “Albert Herring” at San Diego Opera in 1991 (with Christine Brewer and Susan Graham!). Indeed, he presided at the world premiere of “Death in Venice” in 1973 – an opera your website host William just saw in far-away Hamburg, Germany – (See Michael Schade, Nmon Ford, Gabriele Frola Brilliant in Hamburg’s New “Death in Venice” – April 19, 2009.)
This is the fourth Britten opera this website has reviewed in the past year, having in addition to the new production in Hamburg, included new productions of “Billy Budd” in Santa Fe (See Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008) and of “Midsummer Nights’ Dream” in Houston (See Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009). 

[Below: Bob Boles (Greg Fedderly) addresses the townspeople; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Britten (born 1913) wrote this piece during WWII which premiered at Sadler’s Wells’ postwar re-opening in London in 1945 a month after the end of World War II, set on the east coast of England at Aldeburgh where the writer of the original story (much changed by Britten) lived and where Britten took up residence after the premier. This was one of England’s greatest poets, George Crabbe, whose grande poem The Borough, Britten used for Peter Grimes. Britten was greatly influenced in his musical composition by fellow English composer Frank Bridge, a debt he readily conceded. (As a bit of local lore, Britten lived in the San Diego County community of Escondido before “Peter Grimes” premiered. In fact, he acquired the George Crabbe story from a used book store – in Los Angeles! You never know who you might run into in these dusty shoppes!).  


 Dory Fishing in Southern California: Grimes as “Verismo”

A personal note: Your reviewer lives by the sea and has for decades. My bed is but 25 feet from a tidal salt water bay. The ever present sound of the sea, the storms, the fog, the wind, and the foghorns – so skillfully presented by Britten in “Peter Grimes” –  are in my soul.

But to the point: a dory fleet has been located in Newport, California since 1891. Like in Britten’s home by the sea in Aldeburgh, England, fishing boats put to sea, often with an apprentice, hoping to return with a fine catch. But there are times when some do not return.

[Below: the Orange County dory fishing fleet’s headquarters in Newport Beach; photograph by Tom.]

Every time I pass this scene, all I hear is Britten’s music and the chorus shouting “Peter Grimes, Peter Grimes”.

[Below: A dory fishing boat with “apprentices” at Newport, California; photograph by Tom.]