Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten's 20th century English opera is a chilling examination of life in a small fishing community

A Canadian Opera Company production
By Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Johannes Debus
Director: Neil Armfield

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper.

The Canadian Opera Company's current offering of Benjamin Brittan’s Peter Grimes calls us to question right versus wrong, intentions versus actions and the mob mentality that society so often adopts when faced with such questions.

Set in a small fishing village, act one opens with a coroner’s inquest held in the town hall. Peter Grimes (Ben Heppner) is accused of killing his apprentice, a small boy, while at sea. He claims the child was ill and died of natural causes but the villagers appear to have made up their own minds regarding Grimes’ guilt. While the coroner, Mr. Swallow (Tom Corbeil), never officially charges Grimes with the death, he does advise him that he is not to enlist another apprentice unless he can find a woman who will care for the child, essentially branding Grimes as guilty by not professing his innocence.

Grimes becomes an outcast. Driven to redeem himself he concludes that the only way to reintegrate into society is to take on another apprentice and prove to the town, through his success, that he is not the monster they believe him to be. Once redeemed, he will marry Ellen Orford (Ileana Montalbetti) and his success will silence them all. It is in fact Ellen who agrees to obtain another apprentice for Grimes, taking responsibility for the boy, believing that Grimes is a good man who deserves a second chance. She places her name and reputation on the line when she travels to fetch a new boy, John (Jakob Janutka) from the work house. It is clear from the moment the new apprentice arrives that Grimes is a harsh master. A trait that even Ellen recognizes, though she remains naive and blinded by her hope for a future with Grimes. It quickly becomes clear that Grimes is mistreating the boy, on whom he has placed his hopes for redemption, a heavy burden to bear. When the town’s people discover Grimes' recent behaviour they form an angry mob and set out to destroy him. 

Grimes’ character is continuously called into question during the performance. The audience is given enough information that they are emotionally invested but not enough to fully pass judgement on either side. Though the focus of this piece is Grimes, it’s important to note that the behaviour of the townspeople is often less than desirable. There is a particular scene in act two where the villagers are gathered in anger and about to launch an attack on Grimes. The scene is beautifully dramatic but Damian Cooper’s’ lighting design takes it to the next level, pairing the dramatic musical and emotional crescendo with stunning visuals.

Full of suspense and rich with complex characters, this piece is not as grandiose as some of the more classical operas, but it does offer solid character development paired with an ever-evolving plot. Also of particular note are the performances given by Canadian Soprano Ileana Montalbetti in the role of Ellen and Canadian Tenor Ben Heppner in the role of Peter Grimes. Vocally stunning, both are truly engaging and a treat to watch.

Peter Grimes is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until October 26. to

Show Dates: 
Sat, 2013-10-05 - Sat, 2013-10-26
Our rating:


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