New Yorkers and Londoners especially have had ample opportunity to see the profoundly touching dramatic piece on a regular basis; most recently at the Metropolitan Opera with American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role he’s made his own over the past decade.
San Diego Opera fans remember Griffey as Lennie in Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men” (1999) and Mitch in Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (2000). Neither give the magnificent actor/singer as many vocal colors or as much depth of character as that provided by “Grimes.”
San Diegans haven’t seen the lushly orchestrated, beautifully written “Grimes” since 1984, and we are impoverished by that fact. It is to San Diego Opera general and artistic director Ian Campbell’s credit that we see it now. Readers have only two chances to remedy their cultural deprivations, 8 p.m. Friday, April 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 26. Hopefully, “Grimes” won’t be gone from San Diego for another 25 years, and meanwhile one would have to travel a long way to see such a perfectly sung and conducted production.
Based on a character in a long poem by George Crabbe, Grimes is one of the great tenor roles and one of the most enigmatic and discussed characters in all of grand opera. Is he simple? A cruel abuser? A madman? Or is he simply a misunderstood human whose only crime is being different from his neighbors in the Borough, a small fishing village on the coast of England?
Griffey’s interpretation allows us to see glimpses of the man’s shortcomings and virtues. His lyrical singing is wondrous and his forceful passages and quicksilver brutishness, terrifying. Campbell and director John Copley, who got his start on stage as Grimes’ Apprentice (John) in the 1949 Covent Garden production, have assembled a truly remarkable ensemble composed mostly of American singers and featuring role debuts by baritone Rod Gilfrey, in robust voice and excellent dramatic mien as Grimes’ friend, Capt. Balstrode, and soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot, dramatically and vocally viable (if a bit lightweight) as Ellen Orford, the widow Grimes hopes to wed. Her singing of the Embroidery Aria is a highlight and so is her love duet with Griffey.
Characters all, the SDO chorus is terrific in the true sense of the word, especially when expressing the rage and mob mentality of Borough citizenry, who suspect Grimes was responsible for the death of his earlier boy Apprentice. When a terrible accident befalls John, Grimes’ second apprentice (marvelous, sweet Spike Sommers, remembered as Amahl a couple of years ago at St. Paul’s), the chorus prepares to set upon Grimes at his hut. Their first cry of “Peter Grimes!” sends an electric current up one’s spine.
The large company also includes bass-baritone John Del Carlo, who is vocally robust and a figure of supercilious dignity as Justice Swallow; excellent bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter as Ned Keene, the town’s dandified apothecary and provider of laudanum to the widowed Mrs. Sedley (excellent mezzo Janice Meyerson); mezzo soprano Judith Christin as Auntie, proprietor of the pub/brothel; and her two “nieces,” sung by sopranos Priti Gandhi and Priya Palekar. Special mention must be made of the two American tenors who provide extraordinary support: Greg Fedderly as Bob Boles, one of Grimes’ chief detractors; and Joseph Frank, such an amusing presence as Rev. Horace Adams. Australian bass-baritone Andrew Collis portrays Hobson, who picks up and delivers goods purchased in the neighboring town.
One of my favorite moments is when all the town busybodies have departed to seek Grimes, and Auntie, her nieces and Ellen — the outcast women of the Borough — are left alone empathetically to commiserate and console one another and to sing the lovely quartet Britten provides.
In the orchestra pit leading the San Diego Symphony in Britten’s ravishingly beautiful and vibrant score is British conductor Steuart Bedford, a longtime acquaintance of the composer (1913-1976) and a leading expert in performance of his works.
“Peter Grimes” continues at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd St., downtown. Tickets range from $25 to $50, with a limited number of rush tickets available one hour prior to performances; www.sdopera.com or (619) 533-7058.