Review: Anthony Dean Griffey’s Imposing Peter Grimes – Houston Grand Opera, November 12, 2010

“Peter Grimes” is Australian designer Neil Armfield’s fourth production in Houston Grand Opera’s multi-year cycle of Benjamin Britten’s operas. I had reported previously on second and third of the series (see Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009 and Houston’s Haunting, Inscrutable “Turn of the Screw” – January 29, 2010). “Billy Budd” had been presented in 2007.

A generation ago, Jon Vickers and Jess Thomas associated this role with the vocal heft of heldentenors, used to singing the big roles of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. Starring in the production was arguably the supreme Peter Grimes of our times, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who carries on the tradition of these large-voiced tenors.

“Grimes”, a co-production with Opera Australia, West Australia Opera and the Perth International Arts Festival, had previously been seen in Sydney. The production, whose set designer is Australian Ralph Myers and Associate Director is Tama Matheson, consists of a unit set, representing the Borough’s town hall. A back wall opens up as a raised stage that serves as part of Auntie’s pub in the scenes located there. At the climax of the second act, the entire back wall moves forward and that stage area becomes the interior of Grimes’ hut.

The scenes of the fishermen working at the ocean’s edge are represented by rope lines and occasional glimpses of small boats, but all of these scenes by the sea take place in the part of the town hall nearest the audience.

Griffey has rarely performed in Houston. His voice resounded through Houston’s Alice and George Brown Theater, in a searing performance that portrays an unforgettable characterization of this doomed man. The role of Grimes is notable for its challenging aria (accompanied by the chorus) Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades and its chilling “mad scene” Steady! There you are! Nearly home (where Grimes is alone on the stage but is accompanied by the offstage chorus representing the severe judgments of the people of the Borough, who are a constant presence in his mind).

New to Houston audiences was British bass-baritone Christopher Purves in his Houston Grand Opera debut season. His Captain Balstrode was another deeply etched characterization.

[Below: Christopher Purves is Captain Balstrode; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The remaining principal cast members were more familiar to the Houston audiences – Katie Van Kooten (Ellen Orford), Patrick Carfizzi (Swallow), Liam Bonner (Ned Keene), Robert Pomakov (Hobson), Beau Gibson (Bob Boles) and Meredith Arwady (Auntie).

Van Kooten, who had been impressive last season in the Armfield production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a strong Ellen Orford, whose large voice soared above the several ensembles in which Orford participates.

[Below: Katie Van Kooten is Ellen Orford; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The appearances of Liam Bonner as Ned Keene and Patrick Carfizzi as Swallow were both first rate performances. This is a time of transition for each of them, as their personal repertory and engagements are increasingly slanted towards lead roles, rather than thse admittedly very satisfying character assignments.

“Grimes” taxes any conductor and chorus master because of the complexity of the ensembles, with its rounds, its multi-part harmonies, its use of chorus continuously supplemented by several of the principal voices, in musical interplay with Britten’s large orchestra.

The conductor, Patrick Summers, demonstrated his total mastery of the material, constantly cueing the orchestra’s instrumentalists, six dozen choristers dispersed around the stage, and 11 principal singers, signaling individuals on their vocal entrances and on how he wishes the individuals in this enormous enterprise to sound.

As familiar as Summers is with the Houston Grand Opera chorus, it is the months of work, under the leadership of Chorus Master Richard Bado, that assures a chorus ready to respond to a masterful conductor like Summers.

Reflections on the Story

Armfield set this “Grimes” production at the beginning of the postwar era in the mid-1940s.  It probably is a later date than that period in which one’s exploitation of children for economic gain could be countenanced by an entire community without more pangs of conscience than are expressed in the opera.

Mrs Sedley of course is wrong that Grimes murdered his apprentices. He was merely trying to survive, more or less following the unwritten rules of behavior expected of the seafaring men and other persons in that Borough.

The actual time of the story was closer to that of the poet George Crabbe, who wrote the poems on which the opera’s libretto is placed. This was the period when the Royal Navy allowed punishment in excess of 1000 lashes (980 more than Claggart doled out to the Novice in “Billy Budd”).  The idea of “children’s protective services” was as foreign to the bulk of society as the idea of moon travel.

[Below: An enraged Peter Grimes (Anthony Dean Griffey) demands that his boy apprentice, John  (Parker Robertson) join him in his fishing boat, despite dangerously foul weather; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Grimes showed a degree of brutality, yes, and his drive for a level of economic success that would change the Borough’s ways of thinking about him, led to his injudicious decisions to subject boy apprentices to high risk economic pursuits, with fatal results.

But the Borough was complicit, agreeing with Balstrode’s We live and let live and look/we keep our hands to ourselves that establishes (in the affecting style of a sea-shanty) the laissez-faire principal that a man can work his apprentice as he sees fit, without any expectation of the interference of others.

Seeing the opera again in 21st century America, it’s striking at how much, in the terms of the larger society’s concerns about the economic and social well-being of children, we have moved away from the behaviors of Crabbe’s (and perhaps even Britten’s) time. This is a sobering subject for an opera, but in Britten’s skilled hands, the result is a masterpiece of English opera.

For Tom’s review of another production of “Peter Grimes” starring Griffey, see: Anthony Dean Griffey Wows San Diego In a Riveting “Peter Grimes” – April 24, 2009.