In my preview piece for this week’s subscription concerts at Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), I observed that Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is the most widely performed play by a Norwegian author. It’s proportions are epic, 40 scenes distributed across five acts, all in Dano-Norwegian verse. It involves a sea voyage whose magnitude puts the wanderings of Homer’s Odysseus to shame, and that’s just the fourth act. There are 45 distinct roles enumerated in the list of characters on the play’s Wikipedia page, along with a generous assortment of groups of “extras.”
When Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt in 1867, he told his publisher that it would be “a long dramatic poem.” He structured it as the script for a play, complete with highly thorough stage directions; but he told one of his colleagues that the visions of the text went far beyond a capabilities of theatrical staging. He anticipated that it would be sufficient to read the text aloud to an audience, a process that would probably take around four hours.
Nevertheless, by January of 1874, a stage production was being planned; and Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music. Actually, he had a more ambitious plan in mind for Grieg. Because that fourth-act voyage required so many characters and near-impossible staging requirements, Ibsen told Grieg that he would be willing to chuck the entire act and have it replaced by an instrumental tone poem. Grieg rejected that suggestion, but he did provide about ninety minutes of music consisting of 32 relatively short pieces, some of which, such as the dances for the second act, were appropriated from earlier compositions.
Last night MTT conducted about half of those pieces, but he also offered an alternative solution for Ibsen’s original request to Grieg. He performed that tone poem replacement for the fourth act, but the composer was Robin Holloway. This was the first performance of a single movement from a far more extended score of music for the play that Holloway composed between 1984 and 1997; so the full work has yet to be performed in its entirety. MTT further added to the mix three movements from a score that Alfred Schittke composed between 1985 and 1987 (suffering a stroke while working on the project) for a ballet version of Peer Gynt choreographed by John Neumeier. All of these selections were then appropriately distributed over a semi-staged distillation of Ibsen’s plot structured as nine scenes divided into two parts, separated by an intermission.
Thus, what may have begun as an imaginative plan for an SFS program mushroomed into an epic unto itself with a generous cast of actors directed by James Darrah, video projections designed by Adam Larsen, lighting by Cameron Jaye Mock, and even a bit of choreography by Janice Lancaster Larsen. Ibsen, on the other hand, was subjected to extreme reduction by dramaturge Michael Paller, resulting in a text whose English translation never even tried to capture any of Ibsen’s poetic qualities.
Sadly, the result turned into a massive distraction from the opportunity to listen to (and appreciate) an imaginative synthesis of the efforts of three composers to do justice to the spirit of Ibsen’s work. The good news was that some of Ibsen’s words survived through both Joélle Harvey’s performance of the songs to be sung by Solveig and the always-reliable efforts of the SFS Chorus, particularly when they had to portray all the trolls (adults and children) that figure in Ibsen’s second act. However, none of the musical virtues of all three of the composers represented could withstand the assault of Darrah’s tediously leaden staging (in which he sometimes seemed to be confusing Peer Gynt with Till Eulenspiegel) or Larsen’s video designed to accompany Holloway’s score, which tended to unfold at cross purposes to Holloway’s rather clearly defined episodic structure.
Taken as a whole, this evening’s program was an imaginative and boldly ambitious experiment. However, as I have reminded my readers in the past, experiments do not always turn out the way we anticipate or desire. Last night’s adventurous approach to take on Ibsen’s epic sense of proportion ultimately reduced to Fantasia-like simplification that would have been better rejected in favor of just listening to the music itself with an open sense of imagination.