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MTT and San Francisco Symphony present Britten's 'Peter Grimes'

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas
Courtesy San Francisco Symphony - with permission

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus bring the Britten Centennial to a close this week with a ‘semi-staged’ production of the composer’s first full-scale - and most famous - opera, Peter Grimes.

In the first San Francisco Symphony performances of the complete work, a cast of opera singers, led by Stuart Skelton and Elza van den Heever, and more than 200 members of the combined Symphony and Chorus, present Benjamin Britten’s tale of the seafaring outcast.

This opera - which launched Britten internationally as “the leading British composer of his generation and which almost single-handedly revived English opera” - was inspired by a collection of poems, entitled The Borough, by Suffolk poet, George Crabbe. (Source: Britten Pears Foundation). The libretto was written by English poet, novelist and playwright, Montagu Slater.

Born in Lowestoft - a town in Suffolk, on the North Sea coast of England - Benjamin Britten is actually more closely linked to another Suffolk seaside town, Aldeburgh, where - inspired by the chilly, windswept coastline and surrounding countryside - he wrote some of the best-known classical works of the 20th century. In 1948, Britten - together with tenor Peter Pears and writer Eric Crozier - founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival - the 67th celebration of which is taking place this week. Aldeburgh is also home to the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, established by Britten and Pears in 1967.

With Peter Grimes, Britten’s aim was “to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea”. It also reflects a common theme running through his operatic works - “the individual against the mass, and the corruption of innocence”. (Source: Britten Pears Foundation)

Australian tenor, Stuart Skelton has performed the title role with English National Opera, Opera Australia, and the London Philharmonic, as well as with the Royal Opera House production at the National Theatre of Tokyo, and at the BBC Proms. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, he spoke of Grimes' complex character with respect to the fate of his apprentices. “The defining thing for me about Grimes," he said, "is that there is this level where he does not understand why other people are not as capable as he is - in terms of his physical strength and stamina”, and that frustration “is borne out every time he has a young apprentice”.

Director, designer and visual artist James Darrah, together with artist, projection designer and filmmaker Adam Larsen, bring this new interpretation of Peter Grimes to San Francisco. Darrah describes the floor-to-ceiling video set as “magical ... it looks like a living, breathing scene”, rising “like a big curved sail”. Scenic and lighting design is by Cameron Mock, and Sarah Schuessler is associate costume designer.

Peter Grimes is at Davies Symphony Hall on June 26 and 27 at 8.00 pm and on June 29 at 2.00 pm. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website where you can see a behind-the-scenes video of rehearsals for Peter Grimes, interviews with James Darrah and Adam Larsen, and a timelapse video of the sets and panoramic video screens being installed at Davies Symphony Hall.

On Saturday, June 28, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony present a special program featuring Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes - published separately as its own orchestral suite - as well as excerpts from his only full-length ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas. Four Sea Interludes is accompanied an SFS co-commissioned video interpretation of the work by artist Tal Rosner. Tickets and further information from the San Francisco Symphony website.