Monday, June 30, 2014
Peter Grimes Is At His Exercise
Every opera fanatic is created differently. My conversion arrived at the San Francisco Opera House one evening in 1976. I had sporadically attended operas with $3 standing room tickets because I loved classical music, but thought the art form was mostly absurd, an excuse for rich old people to be entertained by fancy costumes, sets and jet-setting singers. Then I saw Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, and was completely overwhelmed by the experience. It helped that Grimes was performed by the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, whose mixture of convincing brutality and poetic tenderness will probably never be surpassed, but the entire cast and production was wonderful, with Sir Geraint Evans directing while playing Captain Balstrode, Heather Harper as Ellen Orford, and John Pritchard conducting.
It turned out that Peter Grimes is not a foolproof opera, and in the intervening decades I walked out of a 1994 production at the Metropolitan Opera with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Renee Fleming because just about everybody onstage looked like they would rather be doing something else, like shopping for Christmas presents. In 1998 I was onstage as a supernumerary in that same San Francisco Opera production from the 1970s, with Thomas Moser as Grimes, and though he did a creditable job, that galvanizing excitement I remembered was noticeably absent even though Donald Runnicles' conducting was exquisite. Finally, the San Francisco Symphony offered a "semi-staged" production last week in Davies Hall as the capstone to their Britten Centennial Celebration which was so extraordinarily well done that I fell in love with the opera all over again. Plus, I noticed a number of first timers to the piece who were obviously as powerfully moved as myself all those years ago. This was a complete and unexpected triumph.
Much credit must go not only to music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra playing at their best, but to the stage director and costume designer James Darrah. Along with scenic and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock and video designer Adam Larsen, he transformed the large barn that is Davies Hall into an evocative staging area. Best of all, the staging was simple and to the point, as were the projections which were understated and suggestive. Creating an open strip between the two projection screens for the huge chorus was a brilliant stroke, especially since they are in many ways the major character in the opera. Under director Ragnar Bohlin, the SF Symphony Chorus did themselves proud, giving the most perfect and soul-stirring account of their music that I have ever heard live or on recordings. In the final scene, as the village is searching for Grimes in the fog and singing his name, the chorus spread out through Davies Hall and created one of the most sensurround musical stagings of Grimes' final mad scene ever experienced.
The casting throughout was luxurious and in Sunday's performance felt almost alchemical, particularly the men's smaller roles which are half-comic 19th century British village types, from the drunk to the lawyer to the minister and so on. Pictured above (left to right) are Rafael Karpa-Wilson as the mute boy apprentice, chorus director Ragnar Bohlin, Kevin Langan as Hobson, Kim Begley as Horace Adams, Eugene Brancoveanu as Ned Keene, and John Relyea as Mr. Swallow. (Not pictured but equally fine was Richard Cox as Bob Boles.)
Alan Opie (above left) did a beautiful job as Captain Balstrode, one of the few characters in the village sympathetic to the troubled, brooding fisherman Peter Grimes who was sung in a performance by Stuart Skelton that was as close to the legendary Jon Vickers as I have seen. What makes the character so fascinating is that on the outside he is a solitary, brooding brute who treats his succession of work-house orphans terribly while on the inside there is a poetic dreamer capable of philosophical tenderness, something that only an opera could express so perfectly. In the first scenes, Grimes is musically gruff and defensive, but near the end of the first act, he suddenly bursts into a soliloquy, "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades..." that is one of the saddest, most beautiful pieces of music ever written. Skelton nailed it and most of the house was in tears.
The widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford is the main female role in the opera and she's usually something of a cipher, making one wonder why this nice lady is enabling a monster in the abuse of his boy apprentices. In Elza van den Heever's magnificent performance, it was finally understandable. Unlike everybody else in the village, she intuits Grimes' better nature, and van den Heever's horror when she realizes that she's been wrong about halfway through the opera is almost unbearably sad. Elza completely inhabited the role and with her huge soprano easily soared over the ensembles and choruses without strain. As she stood crying at the front of the auditorium while Peter goes off to commit suicide at sea and the chorus of villagers reprise their opening chorus, she grounded the entire production in reality.
Britten was a snob about other composers, with finely tuned likes and dislikes, including an early adoration of Beethoven that turned into contempt later in adulthood. One composer he always worshiped, however, was Verdi and this huge, breakthrough piece often feels like a Verdi opera miraculously fashioned for the 20th century. Thank you to the San Francisco Symphony for doing it justice.