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Review: 'Peter Grimes' comes home to San Diego Opera

April 19, 2009 |  3:42 pm


Perhaps there is a hardy Brit or two who has attempted to surf the North Sea, but no one will ever confuse sunny San Diego beaches or tony La Jolla with a grim Suffolk 19th century fishing village northeast of London. Even so, San Diego Opera -- which opened an atmospheric, conscientious, honest production of “Peter Grimes” Saturday night in Civic Theatre -- comes by Benjamin Britten’s great opera honestly.

The composer and the tenor Peter Pears happened to be staying in nearby Escondido in 1941 when they came across an article about the George Crabbe poem on which the opera is based, and there the seeds of Britten’s first major, and most famous, opera began.

This is outsider opera. Grimes doesn’t fit in to the tightly knit, uptight fishing village. A tragic, unpopular  figure, he is hard on his young apprentices but unjustly held responsible for their deaths. The composer’s outsider status has become widely discussed in Britten studies, and exotic outsider this shy, sensitive, gay, somewhat modernist British composer and pacifist (who spent World War II in America to avoid serving in the British army) surely was in Escondido.

San Diego, moreover, employed two old Britten hands. The director, John Copley, began his career playing Grimes’ boy apprentice in the original London production of the opera at Covent Garden in 1949.  He later worked closely with the composer. Steuart Bedford also, during his youth, knew Britten. Bedford’s mother was a member of Britten’s English Opera Group.

And Anthony Dean Griffey is an honest Grimes. The best Grimes of the moment, he is successor to Pears (the hauntingly weird and haunted original Grimes) and Jon Vickers (who was a fisherman as force of nature). Lyrical, almost tender yet powerful, Griffey seems to embody, even more than Pears, what Britten was said to have wanted. He certainly sings the role more beautifully than any tenor before him.

San Diego’s is a “Grimes” that Britten, who died in 1976, would surely have recognized. It looks not unlike the televised production Britten created for the BBC in 1969 (and recently released on DVD). Carl Toms’ sets, from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, recreate the Suffolk village in stone and plank. Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s period costumes were first used at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967.

“Grimes” is an opera, to a certain extent, in the orchestra. Celebrated interludes evoke dawn, moonlight, village life and roiling sea. Bedford’s conducting was exacting and elucidating. In the pit, the San Diego Symphony, one of the country’s better opera orchestras, illumined details. Rhythms were sharp. Britten didn’t waste a note, and Bedford let none escape notice.

 Copley’s direction takes Montagu Slater’s, I think fussy, libretto at its word. He clearly spelled out the action. “Grimes” is a choral as well as orchestral opera, the villagers being their own implacable force.  Copley proved as clear in his direction of crowd scenes as he was careful in his delineation of individual characters. Though imposing little directorial will of his own, he left little to the audience’s imagination. 

But whether honest is the best operatic policy, of course, is a matter of high debate. Copley avoids any suggestion of a homoerotic or pacifist character to his production as did Britten adamantly in his stagings. But modern theater allows room for context, and these are no longer the taboos they were in Britten’s day.

Instead, Griffey’s Grimes remained a vulnerable and self-pitying overgrown boy. His gruffness toward his apprentice and Ellen, who tries to be his savior, seemed less the result of his inner makeup than a day off his meds. Vocally magnificent, Griffey needs now only get under Grimes skin to become the greatest Grimes of them all.

As Captain Balstrode, the one villager who understands Grimes, Rod Gilfry cast a warm glow. Jennifer Casey Cabot’s Ellen was insistent, not warm. But the village's quirky individuals -- the lawyer Swallow (John Del Carlo), the quack Ned Keene (Kristopher Irmiter), the madame Auntie (Judith Christin), the town constable Hobson (Andrew Collis), the fisherman Bob Boles (Greg Fedderly) and the widow Mrs. Sedley (Janice Meyerson) – were all strongly drawn. Spike Sommers was the cowering boy John. 

The chorus also proved very good.  Its tone turned steely in its big climaxes, but that wasn’t ineffective.

Despite theatrical timidity, this is a strong and significant “Grimes.” San Diego Opera, though, has not developed a curious audience. Its promotional material and podcasts take pains to paint “Grimes” as being nothing to be afraid of, as not being a scary modern opera.

The crowd Saturday was restive. People talked through the orchestral interludes and many left before the end. Ticket prices for the remainder of the performances have been slashed to $25 and $50.  But San Diego is a theater town, and maybe a different approach is needed. Why not sell “Grimes” as the modern theater it really is and, like many meaningful things in life, something worth being afraid of?

"Peter Grimes,"San Diego Opera at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m.

Sunday. $25 and $50. (619) 533-7000 or

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of San Diego Opera's production of "Peter Grimes." Credit: Ken Howard