A Gripping “Peter Grimes” at San Diego Opera

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April 18, 2009: New review by David Gregson

In his amusing and astute 1984 book about opera divas, author Ethan Mordden promulgates the term “demented” to describe performances that go far beyond the ordinary. “Filth” applies to just about everything else. “Demented is opera at its greatest, a night when the singers are in voice, in role, in glory… And note: not just thrilling, admirable or inspiring, but demented: insane.” (“Demented: The World of the Opera Diva.”)

I do not think Mordden goes so far as to apply this term to orchestra conductors — or to an opera company’s chorus; however, when it comes to describing the playing of the San Diego Symphony under conductor Steuart Bedford throughout last night’s opening performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” “demented” is simply the only word that will do! It would be impossible to find a recorded performance as super-charged as this one – and at times it came close to blowing you away.

A useful Digitext announcement for the first-act interlude between Scene One and Scene Two might have been, Fasten your seat belts, please, and don’t bother silencing your cell phones because nobody will be able to hear them anyway. Instead of a mere orchestral storm, we were hit by a category five hurricane and the little English fishing village was inundated by a tsunami. Never has this music sounded so wild or so modern. The instrumental voices seemed to be colliding with one another in a mad panic. Insane!

Adding to the musical and dramatic madness of the evening, under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons, the San Diego Opera Chorus utterly surpassed itself. If you were still safely strapped to your seats at the end of Act Three, Scene One, you were pressed back (like the audiophile wondering “Is it real or is it Memorex?”) as the violent choral bursts of “Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!” blasted through the auditorium. Demented!

A possible headline for all this might be San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera Chorus Steal “Peter Grimes”. And they certainly deserve to have this performance preserved in a good quality recording. Let’s see what we get on KPBS, FM 89.5, Sunday, May 3 at 7:00 p.m.

This production also features one of the very greatest “Grimes” interpreters – American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who owns the role now that Jon Vickers and Peter Pears are no long around to sing it. (Vickers, to me the best Grimes ever, is not likely to be singing the role in his 80’s, and Pears died in 1986.) What impresses about Griffey, more than his ambiguous dramatic approach to the part (I mean, what really does make this man tick?) is the sheer beauty of his voice and his vocal phrasing.

Oh, it’s a town full of respectable folk who claim to “live and let and live” and keep their hands to themselves, but their lives are far from exemplary, and they find a scapegoat for their own moral failings in Peter Grimes, the consummate outsider. Ultimately they don’t keep their hands to themselves and Peter, who longs for acceptance but who is deeply conflicted and largely self-destructive, is driven to suicide. Ellen Orford, Peter’s ostensibly prospective bride, might have saved him from his inward-outward bursts of violence, but she fails. It’s an opera full of opportunities for singers wishing to examine and project their (or the director’s) attitudes toward the characters. If Peter has any sinister motivations for hurting his boy apprentices, Griffey does not let us know in this particular production.

With terrific bass-baritone John Del Carlo as a marvelous and imposing lawyer Swallow; baritone Rod Gilfry as a charismatic Captain Balstrode; bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter as a dandy (literally and figuratively) quack. Ned Keene; bass-baritone Andrew Collis as an excellent Hobson,. and lovable mezzo-soprano Judith Christin as the flashy innkeeper Auntie, Anthony Dean Griffey, fine as he is, is but one member of a very strong cast – although I would have liked a larger voice and more commanding presence for the terribly important role of Grimes’ long-troubled girlfriend, Ellen Orford. American soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot sings sweetly and, despite being pretty, looks every inch the stereotype of a “local schoolmistress,” but her characterization is missing an essential authoritative dimension. That is to say, her management of Grimes, such as it is, seems too delicately tentative.

Wonderful tenor Greg Fedderly, a familiar and always welcome face to Los Angeles Opera regulars, is the Methodist fisherman Bob Boles, while tenor Joseph Frank is notable as the Rev Horace Adams. Auntie’s morally dubious “nieces” (“the main attractions of the inn” according to the program) are comically and seductively portrayed by sopranos Priti Gandhi and Priya Palekar. The creepy laudanum addict, Mrs. Sedley (Britten’s allegorical figure for Evil Rumor Unleashed), is spookily done by mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson.

With a remarkable cast, chorus and orchestra like this one, it’s a shame the production values could not have been adjusted upward into something really special. Veteran stage director John Copley and scenic designer Carl Toms both provide something appropriate, solid, representational, and fine looking – almost beyond arguing about, really – but the stage is often packed to the point of relative stasis, and it is a little difficult to sort things out visually (looking up at the Supertitles and all). But beyond this, with a thoroughly demented orchestra and chorus, one would like everything else to match somehow – but it just doesn’t. It stays praiseworthy but somehow ordinary.

On a different sociological note: It often strikes me that the Digitext system, instead of simply displaying commercial ads and opera text translations, could address our chronic audience misbehavior. PLEASE DO NOT TALK DURING THE INTERLUDES BETWEEN SCENES. THESE PASSAGES ARE AMONG THE GLORIES OF THE SCORE AND YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE LISTENING TO THEM, NOT CHATTING AIMLESSLY.

Sigh.

By the way, rumor has it (and I do not mean Mrs. Sedley’s type of rumor) that ticket sales are – shall we say, not so hot — for this San Diego offering. Well, if you skip this one, you’ll be missing the best thing to happen all season – and, in these parlous times, our opera needs all the patrons in can get.

Peter Grimes: Anthony Dean Griffey
Ellen Orford: Jennifer Casey Cabot
Captain Balstrode: Rod Gilfry
Auntie: Judith Christin
Swallow: John Del Carlo
Mrs. Nabob Sedley: Janice Meyerson
Bob Boles: Greg Fedderly
Rev. Horace Adam: Joseph Frank
Ned Keene: Kristopher Irmiter
Hobson: Andrew Collis

Conductor: Steuart Bedford
Director: John Copley
Scenic Designer: Carl Toms
Costume Designer: Tanya Moiseiwitsch
Lighting Designer: Gary Marder
Wig and Makeup Designer: Steven W. Byrant
Chorus Master: Timothy Todd Simmons
Principal Pianist: Paul Harris
Supertiles: Charles Arthur

Apr. 18-26, 2009
619-533-7000 Price: $29-$200.

Civic Theater Schedule
2 pm Apr. 26
7 pm Apr. 18, 21
8 pm Apr. 24

For more information and tickets visit San Diego Opera‘s website

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