“Him who despises us we’ll destroy!”

Benjamin Britten knew a thing or two about intolerance, bigotry and discrimination. Even as late as 1953, nearly a decade after he had fixed his reputation as the first native-born composer of landmark English opera since Purcell, Britten continued to be targeted as un-British by press and government authorities alike. His openly gay lifestyle and pro-libertarian views made him few friends in the Office of Home Secretary. His lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears, narrowly avoided arrest and trial on Victorian-era moral charges.

It was while living in California as a pacifist in the early 1940s that Britten first began to form the piece that was to so unsettle his critics and transfix a wider audience. Friend and fellow émigré W.H. Auden had directed him to a rambling nineteenth century epic, The Borough, written by the eccentric English physician/pastor/poet George Crabbe. The dark, sharply etched stanzas detailing the life and death of a brutal east coast fisherman instantly seized the composer’s imagination. Britten was himself a North Seashoreman. The poem’s moody atmosphere and searing flashes of realism were electrifying. Britten knew at once that he had to return home despite the outbreak of war in Europe. Moving into an old mill near the town of Aldeburgh, site of what was to become an annual festival showcasing his music, the twenty-nine-year old Suffolk native went to work. In less than a year he had finished setting a libretto adapted by playwright and collaborator Montagu Slater to music. The result was Peter Grimes, a troubled existential vision of a world shattered by cruelty and violence.

The Canadian Opera Company revisits Britten’s disturbing masterpiece in an unapologetically taut, deconstructed production currently playing at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Director Neil Armfield shifts the locale from Crabbe’s oppressive village to an austere rehearsal hall in mid-1940s Aldeburgh creating what is essentially an opera about an opera. George Crabbe is present, too, in the person of Dr. Crabbe, a minor character originally, here elevated to a vigilant, voiceless stage manager on hand throughout.  The past clearly has an active part to play in Armfield’s reassessment. It is all a high stakes gamble but one that ultimately pays off. Armfield may have realigned the original setting of Peter Grimes and finessed the opera’s frame of reference, but Britten’s wrenching psycho-social tragedy still holds firm.

In the rough and tumble seaside village of the Borough, Peter Grimes, a fisherman, testifies at a public inquiry into the death of a young apprentice aboard his vessel a month earlier. “Accidental circumstances”, rules the coroner. The townsfolk have their doubts. Grimes’ abusive outbursts are well known. As he is hauling his boat ashore some days later, Grimes learns that a new apprentice can be procured from a workhouse in a neighbouring town. Ellen Orford, the local schoolteacher, volunteers to fetch the boy back as a passenger in a departing carter’s wagon. In the face of the Borough’s mounting hostility, she alone has faith in Grimes’ dreams of bettering himself. Captain Balstrode, a retired merchant skipper, spies an approaching storm. All but Grimes retreat to the shelter of the Boar pub. The wind rises. The sea rages. Grimes dreams fresh dreams. He will outfish every fisherman. He will grow rich and marry Ellen. The two of them will live in peace.

Later that evening, Ellen returns to the Boar, lashed by the howling gale. The new boy is with her. Grimes, an unwelcome guest, drags the lad away.

Weeks pass. Then one bright Sunday morning, Ellen makes a ghastly discovery. The boy’s jacket has been torn and an ugly bruise blackens his neck. Angered by her questions and sensing Ellen’s dwindling trust, Grimes lashes out, striking her viciously across the face. A crowd of passing churchgoers sees and hears everything. Murmured accusations rise to venomous shouts. The madman must be stopped!

The action shifts to Grimes’ hut. He and the boy make ready to set to sea. Grimes is obsessed with landing the catch of a lifetime. Suddenly he hears voices approaching in the distance. He quickly bundles the boy out the back door, ordering the terrified child to make his way down the treacherous cliff below the cabin to his waiting boat. Someone pounds on the door. Grimes turns away. There is a scream. The boy has slipped and fallen. Grimes rushes after him. Men from the Borough burst in. Grimes is nowhere to be found.

Several nights later Ellen finds the boy’s sweater washed up on shore. But still no sign of Grimes. His boat is back however. While the Borough scours the coast, she and Balstrode discover the wild-eyed fisherman alone on the shore. The old captain tells Grimes to take his vessel out into deep water and sink her. Ellen says good-bye. The two slip away. Slowly, softly, dawn begins to break. The Borough reawakens. There has been a coastguard sighting of a fishing boat going down far out to sea. No survivors have been reported.

The harsh story-in-story landscape so starkly depicted in the COC’s recast Peter Grimes is a world of bitter moral subsistence where the weak are exploited, the loner targeted and persecution substitutes for justice. Britten is being more than merely critical of society at home and beyond here. As music historian Philip Brett notes, the opera’s originator positively savages what he perceived to be a dangerous post-war slide towards ultra-conformism and repressive values.

As the opera’s tormented namesake, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, inheriting a charged opening night from vocally ailing Ben Heppner, presents Peter Grimes as a looming, deeply conflicted figure. Witnessing the often explosive behaviour of his menacing fisherman is an unsettling experience, alarming and difficult to watch. Britten makes us work very hard as an audience before we begin to understand the depth of Grimes’ alienation and even harder before gaining sympathy for him as a victim of hypocrisy and mob rule.

The challenge of Peter Grimes for director and singer-actor alike is to find the discarded scraps of humanity in Britten’s distinctly unlikeable anti-hero, not so much to evoke pity but to make the volatile outsider psychologically complete. That Armfield and Griffey succeed so vividly is testament to their insight and sensitivity as interpreters.

Griffey, who originated the title role in this COC co-production from Opera Australia, Houston Grand Opera and West Australian Opera, is a singer actor of searing talent. His far-reaching vocal instrument climbs seemingly beyond the limits of technical possibility. Possessed of an ethereal, other-worldly top, this extraordinary performer nevertheless commands an equally astonishing, animal-like growl at the lower reaches of his range. Griffey’s rendering of Britten’s haunting “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”, an anguished questioning of merciless fate, lands us in a terrible, lonely place of almost inexpressible pain. The Act III mad scene that completes Grimes’ disintegration is as terrifying as a nightmare, dark, gripping and unrelenting. Griffey’s Grimes is a towering achievement. His artistry can not be overstated.

Singing the part of Ellen Orford, the opera’s vital centre of good, Canadian soprano Ileana Montalbetti infuses a dramatically contentious role with enormous dignity, compassion and strength of character. Montalbetti’s brightness of tone and unerring accuracy blend to form a softer, gentler but still dynamic counterpoint to Griffey’s more elemental voice. The two singers operating with very different timbres yet engagingly complimentary colours strike musical sparks together on stage, never more so than in their heartbreaking duet, “Were we mistaken when we schemed to solve your life by lonely toil?”

As Grimes’ only male allies in the Borough, Captain Balstrode and Ned Keene, baritones Alan Held and Peter Barrett offer meticulously voiced, sharply observed performances, turning essentially reactive secondary roles into riveting, fully developed characterizations. Judith Christin and Jill Grove are an outrageously venomous Mrs. Sedley and blowsy Auntie. Both mezzos sing strongly, Christin with a wicked sense of humour, Grove with cynical world weariness. All other members of the cast are similarly striking.

Particularly fine is young Jakob Janutka as John, Grimes’ silent apprentice, embodying a universe of vulnerability in spare, achingly affective mime.

The COC chorus sings even beyond its usual impressive power in this musically remarkable production, bringing the Borough’s townsfolk to life. The massed sound on stage is nothing short of breathtaking, one moment more savage than the last. What begins in the Boar as a chipper round in Act I, “Old Joe has gone fishing”, quickly morphs into a chilling shout spat into Grimes’ face. By Act II the village speaks with one voice. “We’ll make the murderer pay for his crime!” The journey from mundanity to hatred is petrifying and impossible not to follow.

Conductor Johannes Debus and the Canadian Opera Company orchestra channel Britten’s intensely evocative, multi-hued score with dazzling virtuosity. Although a great admirer of twentieth century avant-gardists like Berg and Stravinsky, Britten remains essentially a tonal composer more dedicated to accessible harmony than dissonance, particularly in his early work. Indeed four of the six orchestral bridges that link the action in Peter Grimes, aptly named the Sea Interludes, are regularly presented whole as a popular concert suite. Debus and players perform the pieces with stunning, tangible feeling, particularly critical in a production where hostile nature is always on the other side of an interior walled set. The music paints sound pictures captured so powerfully here that little is lost in the way of observed reality. Vocal accompaniment, too, is sensitive and supple.

Every generation, it seems, offers up its own definitive Peter Grimes. In the 1950s it was the Pears/Britten collaboration. In the 1970s Jon Vickers and conductor Colin Davis triumphed. Philip Langridge and Richard Hickox in the 1990s. In 2013 Neil Armfield’s production sets a new standard of excellence. This Peter Grimes is that important. And that superbly realized.