Benjamin Britten, PETER GRIMES: David Pomeroy (Peter Grimes), Erin Wall (Ellen Orford), Brett Polegato (Balstrode), Gregory Dahl (Swallow), Susan Platts (Mrs. Sedley), Francesca Corrado (Auntie), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (conductor), UBC Opera Ensemble, Nancy Hermiston (director), Orpheum, June 9, 2018.


For his penultimate performance as Music Director of the VSO, Bramwell Tovey arrives at one of the truly enduring masterpieces of 20th-century opera: Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. The maestro’s Britten sympathies have long been evident, not least with two performances of the War Requiem in his tenure with the VSO, the last in 2014.  As with the fine Bernstein Candide of a few years ago, this performance of Peter Grimes was set in opera-in-concert format.  While this deprives the audience of sets, costumes and stage action, the compensating virtue is that a listener can concentrate more fully on the qualities of the singers, instrumentalists and the music as such: the experience may bring to light details of the vocal writing and orchestration that might be lost in a staged performance. Tovey’s persuasive vision of the work, together with the outstanding performances by David Pomeroy and Erin Wall – and a first-rate UBC chorus – made for an experience as powerful and theatrical as any inside or outside the opera house.


The story of Peter Grimes, the brutal fisherman who abuses his boy apprentices and causes their deaths, comes from the lengthy narrative poem The Borough (1810) by George Crabbe (1754-1832). The poem came to Britten’s attention while he and his life partner Peter Pears were visiting California in 1941, and the character of Grimes immediately seized their imaginations as a viable operatic subject. Montagu Slater’s libretto considerably tones down the violent nature of the central character, presenting him as an eccentric visionary who suffers ostracism at the hands of the narrow-minded and prejudiced villagers of the Borough, rather than as a conventional villain. The opera explores a number of important themes – the individual alienated from society, the betrayal and defilement of innocence – that recur throughout Britten’s mature stage works, such as Albert Herring, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice. In Peter Grimes, the composer encourages sympathy for his protagonist by lavishing upon him some of the most expansive and lyrical outpourings of the score; the gossipy villagers, by contrast, often sing with a clipped, staccato delivery that accentuates their brusqueness and impatience. In Britten’s hands, melodic idiom thus becomes a powerful tool of characterization, and a means for directing the sympathies of his listeners. On this occasion, the audience was aided in understanding the action by titles projected above.


A successful performance of this opera requires attention to the stark contrasts that permeate the libretto and score: between humor and tragedy, drama and lyricism, the indifference of nature and the turmoil of human emotions. Despite the absence of sets and costumes in this performance, the principal singers were so completely absorbed in their roles that the contrasts and conflicts in their natures were indelibly impressed on the minds and ears of the audience. In the title role, tenor David Pomeroy commanded an exceptionally wide expressive range, from the hushed mysticism of ‘Now the great Bear and Pleiades’ and the broad lyricism of ‘What harbour shelters peace’ to the searing intensity of his concluding mad scene, ‘To hell with all your mercy.’ However loud or soft his delivery, Pomeroy’s voice was consistently full yet controlled, effortlessly soaring above the orchestra without a hint of strain. The role of Ellen Orford may come across as timid or nondescript in the hands of lesser singers, but soprano Erin Wall brought intelligence and conviction to the character. Her defiant rejoinder to the village gossips, ‘Let her among you without fault cast the first stone,’ demonstrated in a single stroke Ellen’s moral certainty and sense of justice. Equally impressive, however, was Wall’s skill in blending her voice with those of the other characters in the ensembles: in her duet with Grimes at the end of the Prologue, for example, or in the quartet with Auntie and the two nieces that concludes Act II Scene I. The singing of baritone Brett Polegato as the sympathetic skipper Balstrode was also one of the great joys of the evening, thanks to his impeccable enunciation, effortless projection, and sheer beauty of timbre.


All of the supporting roles – including Swallow, Mrs. Sedley, Auntie and her two nieces – received clearly etched characterizations from the talented young singers. The minor characters were all suitably cast, and the ensemble scenes had the ideal combination of vocal balance, clarity, and dramatic pacing. As the townsfolk of the Borough, the UBC Opera Ensemble brought precision and enthusiasm to their task. Indeed, the chorus was perhaps the most multifaceted character of the drama, sometimes playful, at other times bitchy, menacing, or bloodthirsty. Among the most thrilling moments of the performance were the vicious choral exclamations of ‘Him who despises us we’ll destroy’ from the third act, followed by the repeated shouts of ‘Peter Grimes!’

The score of Peter Grimes abounds in passages where the orchestra takes over and comments on the action, either by evoking nature, as in the famous Four Sea Interludes, or by exploring the psychological implications of the preceding scene, as in the Passacaglia from Act II. The orchestra rendered all these passages with a powerful sense of atmosphere and colour; Maestro Tovey’s affection for the opera revealed itself in his careful attention to detail and sense of sonority. Only in a few of the more hectic passages, as in the inquest scene and in the inn scene, did the instruments cover up the voices. And only infrequently did the low brass give in to their characteristic penchant for coarseness and overplaying.

Overall, this Peter Grimes turned out as a fully memorable experience and made the best possible case for concert versions of this and other stage works.

© Nicolas Krusek 2018

Top photo © Jersey Arts