by Suzanne Vanstone
Following his deserved ovations in the COC’s Tristan und Isolde last season, celebrated tenor Ben Heppner returns to portray one of the most iconic roles in 20th-century opera – Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten’s masterful composition of a tormented fisherman shunned by an unforgiving society is a favourite of Heppner’s, and he’s performed the role worldwide in over 40 performances in seven productions. In fact, as soon as the curtain comes down in Toronto in October, he is off to do it again in Vienna.
The role is a complex one to perform, balancing Grimes’s often raging persona with a softer, wounded man who, because of the death of his young apprentice, is forced to defend himself against those who have already decided his guilt. Heppner says, “If you try to soften him too much, he can appear whiny. You have to have the confidence to be disliked. Grimes is not a likeable character in many ways. From the beginning he comes across as being self-righteous, railing, ‘No. I want to explain myself in court. Don’t leave me to be judged by the court of public opinion,’ yet the whole time he is judged by the court of public opinion.”
Heppner says it takes courage at the outset of the opera to be your own man and not care what others think – particularly in the dramatic scenes in the pub and then in the hut. “In the pub, Grimes seems to be in some other space. He loves the brewing storm, while others think he is mad or drunk. Then in the hut scene, although he is rough and tumble with the boy, you suddenly realize how tender he is. He loves this boy and really wants to care for him. Somehow they have a mutual affection that works. And so at the end of the opera, when the curtain comes down, there is often silence from the audience. People are stunned. I think they are trying to figure out why they care about this man; perhaps they were wrong about him. I think it’s genius – you don’t have to be the most beloved character on stage to have that extraordinary effect on people.”
Heppner says the score has a feeling of film music and when he describes it to friends who don’t attend opera a lot and might have qualms about contemporary music, he reassures them that the music is very accessible. “It’s very descriptive, has some beautiful melodies and the music fits the action. It’s like Wagner contemporized – not such a heavy orchestration, but the colours Britten gets in the orchestra are amazing. This is really visceral writing – it just seems to grab you right in your heart and hold onto you.”
One of Heppner’s favourite moments is in the church scene when Grimes confronts Ellen Orford, a schoolmistress who is one of the few villagers sympathetic to his plight. “She is there to protect the boy and has some sort of relationship with Grimes, the nature of which, even after 40 performances, I am still unsure. It seems to have romantic elements, but I created a backstory for myself that perhaps she taught him how to read and he is very appreciative of that. The scene is filled with enflamed passions – on both sides. She approaches him very tenderly ‘Peter, tell me one thing…’ and he snaps, ‘Take away your hand. The argument is finished. Friendship lost. Gossip is shouting everything. To hell with your ambitions. God have mercy upon you.’ It’s a swirling microcosm of his various moods.
“I think Ellen sees something in him that she doesn’t see in the other men, something that really attracts her. She sees his interest in the outside world, and there are only three characters who have any vision of that – Captain Balstrode, Ellen and Grimes. If I use my own backstory of Ellen having helped him read, she has perhaps suggested things for him to study, so he has a connection with the outside world. Balstrode is a world-travelled sea captain and Ellen has actually, if not travelled, travelled through her books. They are the only people who have an outside perspective. Everybody else is locked into their society and their little town.”
In portraying that insular town, director Neil Armfield sets the piece in a rehearsal hall, similar perhaps to Britten’s own Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. Armfield says, “The music paints pictures not only of the sea and the land around The Borough, but also the spaces that separate people, and in those spaces we feel fear and mistrust, anger and love, hope and despair. I saw my job in this production as allowing the world that Britten creates so vividly in the music to play freely in the audience’s imagination, and I was at pains to ensure the experience of watching and listening to Peter Grimes not be blurred by too literal a representation of this world in the actual images created on stage. In a sense all of my productions in theatre have been about trying to share with an audience the experience of play that goes on in the rehearsal room before opening – to render that experience in a not entirely finished form, so that the minds of the audience are all engaged in finishing it together.”
Ben concurs. “I think Neil’s staging improves our understanding of the opera. I’ve done Peter Grimes both ways – with boats and nets, etc., and I’ve also performed it with very little on stage. The thing that this kind of approach does for the audience is unbelievable. It gets rid of all that other stuff and focuses in on the relationships between all the characters. That’s what it’s about. It’s an amazingly well written piece of drama. There is a real self-examination that occurs when you watch this opera and that is the best kind of theatre – it makes you think, it involves you, you’re caught up in it. That’s why people need to come to this – it’s such a great experience.”
This article is published in our Peter Grimes house program. Click here to read the original article online
Photos: (top) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper; (middle) Ben Heppner. Photo by Kristin Hoebermann; (bottom) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001