After a flurry of productions during the 1990s and a 2004 staging of Billy Budd by the San Francisco Opera, Benjamin Britten's operas have not been heard in San Francisco for quite a while. It was therefore quite surprising that the San Francisco Symphony would be the company to step forward a year following the Britten centenary with a significant operatic production by the composer. After programming The Prince of the Pagodas and Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings in June, the Symphony's month-long Britten tribute was building toward a climax: a semi-staged, multimedia production of Britten's first and greatest triumph as an opera composer, Peter Grimes.

Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) © Stefan Cohen
Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes)
© Stefan Cohen

The Symphony's long-time Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas deserves credit for producing this exhilarating and satisfying presentation of a work based on an essentially gloomy and depressing story. MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, a collaboration whose highlights include discovering and championing worthy new works, complete Mahler cycles and the current Beethoven project, have never been known for mounting operas. Besides an early apprenticeship post as an assistant conductor in Bayreuth, MTT's forays into the opera house have been obscured by his tremendous contributions in the concert hall. Therefore, converting Davies Symphony Hall into an opera house-like environment with theatrical lighting, projected scenes, period-costumes, and a catwalk-like platform that allowed the singers to move completely around the orchestra, was an unexpected and ambitious culmination of the Britten mini-season. While recent performances of works by Grieg and Debussy have also stretched the term "semi-staged," the production of Peter Grimes, staged by James Darrah, felt every bit like a fully staged opera performance.

© Stefan Cohen
© Stefan Cohen

Two horizontal screens, hung from one end of the stage to the other, followed the semi-circular curve of the bandstand like a cyclorama surface for Adam Larsen's minimalist projections. These mostly provided moody atmosphere for the action with just enough visual evidence of the seaside environs. Except for the undulating waves in the final scene, the projections were mostly static with only occasional animation. Sarah Schuessler's appropriately drab costumes contributed greatly to the setting. After hearing Stuart Skelton's outstanding performances in Wozzeck and Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera, I was thrilled to see this performer in a role he has performed to great acclaim abroad. He did not disappoint. He portrayed the troubled Peter Grimes with a blend of sensitivity and volatility. He managed the roles's significant vocal challenges well though he seemed more comfortable in the violent and extreme exchanges than in the softer singing heard in the aria "Now the Great Bear and Pleides."

Soprano Elza van den Heever was sensational as Ellen Orford, the woman who believes in Grimes when everyone else has turned on him. I have read that the part of Ellen is an ungrateful one, as it lends few vocal opportunities for the performer to shine. Ms van den Heever would have none of that; her performance was beautifully sung, acted with total engagement and presented a sympathetic and utterly lifelike presence throughout. Her Act II scene with the apprentice where she alternates phrases with a hymn being sung by the chorus, was one of many vivid moments that paradoxically brought out the performance's verismo quality, even though it is one of Britten's more creative abstractions. Because the South African soprano trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Ms van den Heever is regarded here as a “hometown girl”. The roar of the audience during her final bows showed both local pride and appreciation for her moving performance.

Elza van den Heever (Ellen Orford) and Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes) © Stefan Cohen
Elza van den Heever (Ellen Orford) and Stuart Skelton (Peter Grimes)
© Stefan Cohen

The world class voices of Kim Begley (Horace Adams), Alan Opie (Balstrode), John Relyea (Swallow), and Ann Murray (Auntie) established a high standard for the supporting cast, while artists Eugene Brancoveanu (Ned Keene), Richard Cox (Bob Boles), and Nancy Maultsby (Mrs. Sedley) also contributed significantly to the overall excellence of the performance. Ragnar Bolin's chorus was an imposing presence and, despite their number, sang the text clearly enough to be understood without reading the titles.

At the center of this triumphant operatic production were MTT and the San Francisco Symphony. Britten's Sea Interludes were performed with virtuosity and expressiveness, vividly illustrating the gusting winds and choppy white caps of the turbulent sea. The eerie motives and great orchestral glissandos were a thrill to hear performed within their original theatrical context by this assemblage. The marriage between these musicians and this composer seems to be a happy one. I hope MTT has a Britten opera cycle planned and that The Turn of the Screw or Death in Venice are next.

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