By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer, and Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
In a sea-battered village on the east coast of England, a fisherman named Peter Grimes is suspected of murdering his young apprentice. But his crime – real or not – will soon be eclipsed by something more sinister: a nameless crowd united by hatred, out to persecute the lone outsider in their midst.
Finding Home, Away From Home
In April 1939, with fascism casting a long shadow over Europe, English composer Benjamin Britten relocated to America. While working in California, he discovered the poetry of George Crabbe, an English writer from the late 1700s. Crabbe’s bracingly realistic depictions of village life in Suffolk filled Britten with nostalgia and homesickness. And the story of a cruel Aldeburgh fisherman, included in Crabbe’s 1810 collection, The Borough, gave Britten the seed of his first full-scale opera. In reading Crabbe, Britten noted, “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked.” A year later, he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, sailed home for England.
The poet George Crabbe was born in Aldeburgh, while Britten was born only a few miles from there in Lowestoft. The geography and landscape of the coastal region underpins their best work.
Many scholars regard Peter Grimes as an allegory about social oppression. On this analysis, Grimes’s “criminality” is not inherent to his character but arises from internalizing the judgement of others, from assimilating a particular view of himself held by a hostile majority. Struggles with social censure were a part of Britten’s personal life too: he was a homosexual, which was considered a criminal offence in Britain at the time, and a committed pacifist, which he remained even at the height of the British war effort.
The tightly knit, close-minded townspeople who shun Peter Grimes are played by the chorus, along with a number of supporting performers. The advance of the crowd on Grimes is one of the most menacing and chilling scenes in all opera. Aided by our impressive COC Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus, Armfield handles the scene with a simple and highly effective manipulation of the set, which focuses the terrifying experience of crowds and power, into an unforgettable moment of breathtaking theatre. In Act II, the men of the Borough go off to track down Grimes in his hut while the women, including Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces, are left behind to ponder their position in this rough, male-dominated society. They sing the quartet, “From the gutter,” included at the composer’s insistence to provide “some softening, some change, some relaxation after the intensity of the march to the hut.” Its very specific sound world was directly inspired by the famous final trio from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911). In turn, Britten’s quartet inspired Leonard Bernstein – conductor of the first American performances of Peter Grimes – to similarly use the sound of falling flutes in the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story (1957).
Crabbe portrayed Grimes as an abusive sadist, unmistakably at fault for the deaths of his boy apprentices. Yet Britten’s opera reinterprets the character radically, makes him more sympathetic and renders his culpability a question up for debate. While he is still flawed and violent, in Britten’s opera Grimes is also a dreamer: a lonely and poetic soul, victimized by an intolerant community. In Act I, scene i, Peter Grimes sings the arioso, “What harbour shelters peace?” which includes the opera’s most famous leitmotif (recurring musical theme): an interval between two notes (technically, a “rising 9th”)
whose very sound contains a hopeful, yet haunted quality. At this moment, the interval serves to communicate Grimes’s fleeting desire to integrate into his community by marrying Ellen Orford. By the time it returns at the opera’s conclusion, it has lost any connection to real life happiness. Grimes has lost his mind and intones the interval in a vain attempt to recall earlier “happier” times.
Entering the Borough
Director Neil Armfield sets Peter Grimes in a village hall, one that’s probably not so different from the place where Benjamin Britten would have rehearsed the opera in England during the mid-1940s. It’s a space where members of the community meet, but it’s also a venue for performance and the creative process. This is motivated partly by Armfield’s own experience of final run-throughs in theatre: owing to the absence of scenery, rehearsals rely on the story’s essential ingredients – here, it’s Britten’s music – which engage our imagination with heightened intensity.
The costumes in our production are typical of British mid-century dress, communicating the adversities of the war years and the hardships of life in a fishing village.
The commission contract for Peter Grimes stipulated a female lead and so Britten created the character of Ellen Orford. He felt his piece needed a somewhat “typical” opera heroine; a woman to act as Grimes’s possible saviour. Act II begins with a yearning melody played by the cellos and violas which will subsequently be sung by Ellen when the curtain rises, beginning with her words: “Glitter of waves.” Later in the scene, the same tune returns as she endeavours to engage Grimes’s boy apprentice in conversation with the words “I’ll do the work, you talk.” The melody serves a dual purpose: it gives eloquent “voice” to the apprentice, which is a silent role, but also represents Ellen’s hopes (soon to be dashed) that she can save Peter Grimes and perhaps even form a family unit with the fisherman and his apprentice.
Another silent role in the opera is Dr. Crabbe. No such character is mentioned in the original poem but Britten’s opera lists him among the dramatis personæ. By creating an observer called Crabbe – the name of the poet who penned the source material – Britten might be giving a nod to the cross-generational process of artistic creation in which he was participating. Armfield’s staging embraces the Dr. Crabbe role; the silent character will be seen throughout the production, a near-constant observer of the goings-on in The Borough, especially during the famous orchestral Sea Interludes.
Peter Pears, the first tenor to sing Peter Grimes, noted that Britten “imagined the sea as being in the orchestra so it was not necessary to see [the sea]
on stage.” Britten personifies its destructive force in six orchestral preludes and interludes, which set the scene and mood, convey a specific psychological tone as well as indicating Peter Grimes’s state of mind. The Act II interlude is written as a “passacaglia: a musical form in which a small fragment is repeated
over and over while other material is developed around it. In this instance, the fragment consists of a six-note phrase played pizzicato (plucked rather than bowed tones), first by the cellos and basses, and then with harp, 40 times. A gradual increase in the number of instruments and volume telegraphs the quickening dramatic tension as the village mob approaches Grimes’s hut.
This article is published in our Fall 2013 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the article online.
Photos: (top) A scene; (middle) (l-r) Danielle MacMillan as the Second Niece, Jill Grove as Auntie and Claire de Sévigné as the First Niece; (middle) (at right) Alan Held as Captain Balstrode and Jill Grove as Auntie; (middle) Jakob Janutka as John, Peter Grimes’s apprentice, and Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford; (bottom) Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford (centre). All images from the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes. Photos by Michael Cooper.
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By Meighan Szigeti, Associate Manager, Digital Marketing and Danielle D'Ornellas, Digital Marketing Coordinator
So what’s it all about?
La Bohème is a story of a young group of bohemians, originally set in 1840s Paris in the Quartier Latin. The four main characters, Mimì, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello, and their friends Colline and Schaunard all share the ups and downs of a typically bohemian life – love, loss, poverty, fun, and living life as if it was a performance. You have Rodolfo the poet, Mimì the seamstress, Marcello the painter, Musetta the singer, Schaunard the musician and Colline the philosopher, each defined by what they do, but not limited by it. As an opera, La Bohème is both light-hearted and heartbreaking, and has drawn audiences since its premiere with its emotional score and story-telling.
Want a quick synopsis? Head over here to read the plot on the performance. (Spoiler alert if you haven't seen it yet!)
Mimì and Rodolfo vs. Marcello and Musetta — which couple do you prefer?
When watching a performance of La Bohème, it’s quickly apparent there’s a juxtaposition between the two couples in the opera. It's almost as if Musetta and Marcello act as the extroverted, dynamic foil to the more down-to-earth and tender romance of Mimì and Rodolfo.
So if you’re a fan of the “dreamy, sensitive, just can't seem to make it work” camp, Mimì and Rodolfo might be for you, but if you’re more interested in the funny and feisty “did they break-up again?!” type of couple, you may be drawn more to Musetta and Marcello instead. Thankfully we have a handy chart to help you decide which pair of lovers you relate to more:
Mimì and Rodolfo
Musetta and Marcello
How did they meet?
A sweet, serendipitous meeting when Mimì’s candle goes out as she’s walking past Rodolfo’s apartment.
We have no idea, since they are introduced to us as former lovers. We meet Musetta on the arms of her aging sugar daddy with Marcello trying really hard to ignore her, but you know, he can't, because it’s Musetta.
Why did they break up?
Rodolfo acts harshly, but he is masking a terrible guilt that he cannot provide the care that Mimì's delicate health requires. He pushes her away so she can attract a much wealthier suitor who would have more resources to support her through her illness.
Musetta is an independent woman and Marcello a free-spirited artist — they should be together, but their stubborn nature just won't let them! They end things in Act III with a catty argument, yet seemingly reconcile during Mimi's illness. So who knows what their future holds?
Who's their pop culture equivalent?
Oliver and Jenny from Love Story.
Ross and Rachel from Friends
Why is La Bohème so special?
This opera is one of the operas that everyone knows, has listened to, or has some knowledge of. Much like The Barber of Seville and Carmen, La Bohème has sunk its teeth into the popular cultural subconscious (as described in our previous blog post) and has inspired other pieces of popular musical theatre like Rent. Puccini’s score and Henri Murger's story draw the audience in with memorable melodies, youthful and irreverent characters, and a heartbreaking romance. It's an opera that attracts many opera newbies with its universal story of love and loss, but with enough musical firepower to keep aficionados coming back for more.
What will the production look like?
This summer we tagged along with set and costume designer David Farley as he gives us a behind-the-scenes hint of his beautiful sets and costumes designs. Watch the video below for a preview of the props and scenery used in the opera.
Who’s starring in it?
Many of the roles require two singers because of the number of performances and some of the cast do vocal multi-tasking to switch between roles!
Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury is one of the stars playing double duty, performing both as the sassy Musetta and the tragic. Also playing Mimì is Grazia Doronzio, a talented Italian soprano who has sung the role in many opera houses in Europe and North America. Both singers are recent graduates of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and are making their COC debuts.
Musetta is also performed by Vancouver-born Simone Osborne, a 2012 graduate of the COC’s Ensemble Studio who has spent the last year traveling to Japan, Zurich, Los Angeles, Dubai and back home again! But this won’t be the only chance to see Simone — she’ll also be playing Oscar in Un ballo in maschera on the COC mainstage in February 2014.
Playing the romantic Rodolfo are a number of talented tenors, The sensitive poet is ably played by three charming American tenors, Dimitri Pittas, Michael Fabiano and Eric Margiore (read more about them in our post about the trio here!)
Musetta's charming, sometimes lover, the painter Marcello is played by baritones Joshua Hopkins and Phillip Addis. Hopkins is reprising his role in this new co-production, having also performed the role at Houston Grand Opera in 2012. Phillip Addis recently played Marcello at the Calgary Opera and Theatre Basel, and when he's not performing as Marcello in our production, he does double-duty as Schaunard.
Rounding out the cast are Christian Van Horn and Tom Corbeil as Colline, and Ensemble Studio member Cameron McPhail, sharing the role of Schaunard with Phillip Addis, Thomas Hammons as both Benoît and Alcindoro, Ensemble Studio members Owen McCausland as Parpignol, Clarence Frazer as Customs House Sergeant and Gordon Bintner as Customs Officer, and Doug MacNaughton also sharing the role of the Customs Officer.
Want to learn more?
If you want to explore some of the links we've provided in this post, we've gathered them all here for your reading and viewing pleasure!
The Three Tenors: Meet Dimitri Pittas, Eric Margiore and Michael Fabiano
La Bohème in Pop Culture
Inside Opera: Building Bohème: Costumes and Wigs
Inside Opera: Building Bohème: Props and Scenery
Inside Opera: The Greatest Love Story Ever Sung
Artist Basics: David Farley
Behind the Scenes at the COC: September 27, 2013
Photos: (top) (l-r) Phillip Addis as Marcello, Eric Margiore as Rodolfo, Cameron McPhail as Schaunard and Tom Corbeil as Colline; (middle) Eric Margiore as Rodolfo and Joyce El-Khoury as Mimì; (middle) Phillip Addis as Marcello and Simone Osborne as Musetta; (middle, bottom) A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. All photos from the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of La Bohème. Photos by Chris Hutcheson.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001