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the brilliance of “Peter Grimes”

A thrilling evening last night in this fair city, a night when the promised rain held off and the downtown streets were so full of people enjoying Nuit Blanche festivities that it was hard to move.

But first – the opera. I’ve mentioned before my great luck to have a student in the chorus, who sometimes is offered cheap seats to fill up the theatre and sends the info on. So for $25 each, Annie, Jim and I sat in orchestra seats last night for the opening of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” One of the reasons for the cheap seats, perhaps, was that famed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner had pulled out due to vocal troubles. We were sorry not to see him, but the replacement, Anthony Dean Griffey, had had rave reviews in the same role, so we knew it’d be good.

I had no idea just how good. It’s moving, haunting, a fantastic production of an opera that must have been revolutionary when it opened in 1945, still startling and vivid today. Often modern music seems random and gratuitously ugly to me, but last night, a whole new part of my brain opened up to the beauty of this atonal but stunning score. It’s like a dour Thomas Hardy novel on stage, Grimes a scorned outsider and doomed loner, perhaps a reflection of Britten’s feelings as a homosexual and pacifist in war-weary, narrow-minded England. Britten and his life-long partner the tenor Peter Pears, the first Peter Grimes, managed to escape prosecution for being gay, but their compatriot, the computer genius Alan Turing, did not. What a benighted time.

Everything about this production was exquisite – the singing and acting, the set and lighting. When I read about the opera, I couldn’t imagine how it could work, the tiny story of a troubled misfit fisherman in a remote village, in a grand opera. Well, it does, and how. I felt blessed to have been in the presence of such genius – as if I’d grown a bit bigger. That’s what great art does.

And then, out into the surge of crazy artistic life that is Nuit Blanche. Last night I wondered if it can last without violence – hundreds of thousands of young kids on the streets, pumped up, looking for action. It was just too crowded for us, so after managing to thread our way to Nathan Phillips Square and its various offerings – besides the Weiwei bicycles, there were two driverless cars weaving in balletic fashion, and a giant neon poem – we walked back here, seeing various installations on the way.

Annie and Jim raised their kids in Scarborough, but are thinking of selling the big family home and perhaps moving downtown. “Just feel the excitement and energy,” I said, “it’s like this all the time.”
“Yes,” said Annie. “That’s the problem.”



4 Responses to “the brilliance of “Peter Grimes””

  1. theresa says:

    Oh lucky you to see Peter Grimes! I am a great Britten fan and am hoping to see Vancouver Opera's production of Albert Herring in late November (my hope hinges on plans to drive to California earlier in the month and how long that trip will take…). I saw Gloriana last spring in Prague and it was just wonderful.

  2. beth says:

    Theresa, I feel like an boor – didn't know Britten at all before last night. What a revelation. As I said, it made me feel like a bigger person. Stunning. Hope you get to see the opera in Vancouver.

  3. theresa says:

    I don't think you're alone in not being familiar with Britten's work, Beth. He's not exactly a household name. But oh, listen to the Ceremony of Carols this Christmas. So lovely. And his arrangements of English and Irish folksongs, most of them arranged for Peter Pears, are really worth looking for. I have a recording of Pears singing them and then one or two more recent recordings too. They don't get old.

  4. beth says:

    I will listen to more, Theresa, thanks for the advice. The production has received rave reviews, well deserved.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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