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Extraordinary Britten Series Continues with Grimes

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
10/29/2010 -  and Oct 31, Nov 6, 10*, 12, 2010
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Robert Pomakov (Hobson), Patrick Carfizzi (Swallow), Anthony Dean Griffey (Peter Grimes), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs. Sedley), Katie van Kooten (Ellen Orford), Meredith Arwady (Auntie), Beau Gibson (Bob Boles), Christopher Purves (Captain Balstrode), Joseph Evans (Reverend Horace Adams), Kiri Deonarine (Niece), Brittany Wheeler (Niece), Liam Bonner (Ned Keene)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Neil Armfield (director), Ralph Myers (set designer), Tess Schofield (costume designer), Damien Cooper (lighting designer)

K. Kooten and A. Griffey (© Felix Sanchez)

Peter Grimes, the fourth in Houston Grand Opera's series of operas by Benjamin Britten (Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Turn of the Screw), continues the strong casting and distinctive production values of its predecessors. One has come to expect excellence when the music of Britten hits the Brown Theater stage, and in this production, excellence is exceeded, with exceptional singing and a unique, compelling visual production. Though I adore this opera, I've been slightly disappointed in previous productions, either by an absurd visual concept (John Doyle's Metropolitan Opera production in 2008) or by lackluster singing (Oper Frankfurt in 2003). HGO has every aspect of this production right.

Eyebrows may rise as the curtain does. Ralph Myers' set, essentially an anonymous public school space serving double duty as cafeteria and theater room, complete with fluorescent lights and flimsy folding chairs, seems to be a complete mismatch with this, the pinnacle of operatic evocation of time and place. As the drama begins to unfold, however, it immediately becomes clear that director Neil Armfield's decision of "allowing the world that Britten creates so vividly in the music to play freely in the audience's imagination" is a stroke of genius. The subtle visual manipulations, and notably the mesmerizing, discreet use of lighting effects, are thoroughly convincing. Our focus shifts primarily to the music, the singing and the acting, and afterward we ponder the visual production, and are reminded that this story is universal. Britten's score has forever enshrined the drama in the small British coastal communities that were intimately familiar to him, and now we are encouraged to place the drama in a setting that resonates with us. The one major set change amplifies the most intense scene of the opera, during the passacaglia interlude that begins the second scene of Act II. The stage at the back of the set slowly moves forward and creates a claustrophobic, hyper-dramatic environment that brings us frightfully close to Grimes and his apprentice and their respective mental and corporeal demises. The effect is literally hair-raising.

Anthony Dean Griffey is without a doubt one of the great Britten tenors on the scene today. His commitment to this role and his technical mastery of pitch, rhythm and subtle nuance allow him ultimate freedom on stage. Each movement and utterance is essential. His entrancing incantation of "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" is a showstopper. His mad scene in Act III is brilliantly unhinged. His pitch and rhythmic interaction with Katie van Kooten's Ellen in their a capella bitonal duet at the end of the prologue are perfect. There simply is no disappointing moment in his portrayal of the role.

Ms. van Kooten, who received rapturous applause at the end of the night, deserves every ounce of it. Her voice is practically paradoxical. She combines utmost flexibility with ultra-rich strains of tone and broad vibrato with pinpoint intonation. There is absolutely no break in the quality and control of her voice from peak to valley, bellow to whisper. As an actress, she conveys the complexity of her relationship with Grimes as well as with the rest of the borough with conviction. Hers is a strong, modern Ellen, with unflagging confidence as she swims upstream against an avalanche of adversity.

The superlatives don't stop with the two leads. Christopher Purves' Baltstrode and Meredith Arwady's Auntie are standouts among the smaller roles. Both have deliciously powerful voices and are resolute and down to earth in their characterizations. Liam Bonner is aptly cheeky as Ned Keene, lustily chasing Kiri Deonarine and Brittany Wheeler, whose Nieces are continuously connected and could come straight out of Lewis Carroll. Indeed, there isn't a weak link in the cast, and HGO's ability to consistently find singers with the technical and acting chops to master Britten's demanding roles is impressive.

Patrick Summers leads a taught, brisk performance with his fine orchestra. The storm interlude is taken at crackerjack speed, but there is no lack of clarity or finesse. The HGO chorus is thrilling as always, with unbelievably precise diction at extremes of dynamics and range. This is an extremely memorable production of Peter Grimes, and yet another feather in HGO's cap.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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