Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Crazy About the Boy

April 22, 2009

Anthony Dean Griffey and Spike Sommers in Peter Grimes
Photo: Ken Howard/LAO 2009

Although it may be a bit premature to say so, San Diego Opera’s current production of Peter Grimes is clearly the highlight of the their 2009 opera season. More specifically, Anthony Dean Griffey’s performance in the title role is world-class and riveting. He was widely lauded for his performance of the same role at the Metropolitan Opera in early 2008 which has now found life on an excellent DVD. But there is really no comparison to seeing him live, and San Diego is offering its audience a big treat by staging this 20th-century masterpiece when other California companies of less nerve have backed away from Britten’s admittedly dark work in the coming months. Griffey brings a tragic innocence to the part in an interesting parallel to the very boyishness he’s accused of murdering by the community in which he lives.

Of course, Griffey isn’t alone on stage, and San Diego has delivered on the challenging and quite beautiful choral music Britten calls for. Grimes’ never-to-be paramour Ellen Orford is sung by American soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot who warms up over the course of this production starting out a little more schoolmarmish and developing into a loving, and sadly abandoned, woman as all her good intentions unravel around her. Rod Gilfry was a dignified Captain Balstrode, and Kristopher Irmiter’s Ned Keene hit just the right combination of sly and warm. I must say that I was really pleased with Greg Fedderly’s Bob Boles as well. A thankless role of a zealous townsman who whips up religious fervor and negative sentiment against Grimes, Bob Boles is far less showy than Mrs. Sedley, a character who serves a similar function but receives much more attention. Fedderly proves you can make the most out of even the seemingly smallest part and he made the loathsome Boles very menacing without resorting simply to shouting in the town’s square.

Not everything is perfect. John Copley’s well traveled production is less than ideal. While not as bad as some of his Handel and Mozart monstrosities, he still can’t completely lay off the kitsch. The chorus too often is directed into unnecessary histrionics during crowd scenes and the dark and somber mood of the piece is often marred by what look like sitcom antics. There is some effort to focus on the placement of light and color, but the stage images veer towards the cartoonish at times. There seems to be an uncertainty about entrances and exits with Grimes just wandering on and off the stage whenever he’s headed into or out of the sea in a show with a paradoxical absence of a maritime feel. Worse yet, Britten's beautiful sea interludes, which were handled so well by the orchestra under Steuart Bedford, were treated as little more than scene change music with the curtain down and lots of rumbling backstage. The audience delivered plenty of applause in these stretches, effectively squashing perhaps some of the loveliest musical moments in the whole show. Still there’s too much to like here to miss, and you may want to check this out if your in town during the last two performances this weekend.

I also noted that San Diego Opera announced its reduced, four-production 2010 season this week. After months of talk about all the cutbacks and financial woes of the organization, they should be lauded for a very smart, if not necessarily daring, schedule next year. Wisely counter programming what’s left of its nearest large competitors, San Diego is going with big Italian staples while San Francisco Opera is dark and Los Angeles Opera is on hiatus from its reduced schedule before diving into all German programming in Spring and Summer 2010. San Diego will start with La Boheme starting in late January starring German superstar Anja Harteros as Mimi and the rapidly rising Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Following this will be Verdi’s Nabucco, which hasn’t been around these parts in a while and featuring the talents of another very impressive lead, Zeljko Lucic, in the title role. March will bring Gounod’s Romeo And Juliet with Stephen Costello before ending the season with Elizabeth Futral taking another swing at La Traviata. Times being what they are, what’s not to like?

UPDATE 4/23: I was just informed by a reader that all tickets for the last two performances of Peter Grimes this weekend on the 24th and 26th are 50$/25$! That is one great bargain.


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