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Opera returns to the stage of Davies Symphony Hall and triumphs

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During the course of his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has experimented several times with the performance of full-length operas, usually working with a stage director who judiciously used the space on the Davies Symphony Hall stage not occupied by the orchestra. His understanding always seems to begin with the musical qualities of the opera as a necessary prerequisite for effectively presenting the dramatic qualities. (Those who know a bit about MTT’s background probably know that he conducted the American premiere of the completed three-act version of Alban Berg’s Lulu for the Santa Fe Opera. I was at Santa Fe that summer, and it was the first time I had experienced the sophisticated complexities of Berg’s score in a way that made sense.)

Last night in Davies MTT led the first of three performances of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 33 opera Peter Grimes. This was Britten’s first major success and is probably his most-performed opera. It also proved to be a perfect fit for MTT’s aesthetic stance, because, for all the virtues of the narrative, this remains one of the most outstanding models of musical inventiveness for full orchestral resources in the service of a tightly-knit fabric of vocal lines.

There is so much to admire in how Britten crafted this opera that it is difficult to know where to begin. In the case of last night’s performance, though, I would have to begin with clarity. When I wrote last September about the packaging of the operas in Britten: The Complete Works, I expressed regret that librettos were not included as part of the package. I then noted that, for all of the operas in the set, the voices had been recorded with such clarity that one could manage just as well with the synopsis descriptions that were provided.

Clarity was clearly a top priority under MTT’s direction. This was true not only for the many voices that had solo roles but also for the full SFS Chorus (prepared by Director Ragnar Bohlin) and the entirety of SFS resources. Of course Britten was a stickler for detail in just about every aspect of the music, not only the setting of the text but a penetrating use of counterpoint, often to elaborate the complexity of multiple points of view, and a keen ear for the combination of instrumental resources, through which he could establish a sense of place far more profound than any mere assemblage of sets and props. MTT’s command of all of Britten’s musical qualities was always solid; and, in the more limited space of Davies, the opera took on even more intensiveness than it usually assumes on a large opera stage.

None of this is to dismiss the depth of understanding brought by the principal vocalists last night. In many respects Peter Grimes is a dramatic challenge, since the title character is the one with the least backstory. We know that Grimes is an “outsider” among the people of the seaside borough in which the narrative unfolds. We also know that he thinks he can redeem himself through the wealth that would come from a series of successful catches as fishing; and, over the course of the narrative, two young apprentices die out of failure to keep up with his obsessively demanding pace. Nevertheless, we never know the source of his alienation and its resulting brutal obsessions. Just about every other character has a few suggestive fragments of background, but not Grimes himself.

Working with Stage Director James Darrah, tenor Stuart Skelton presented Grimes as a victim of mental instability. His interior monologues suggest the haunting of grotesque nightmares and a descent into madness in the waking world. He keeps to himself because he cannot engage with others in either casual or formal settings. One gets the sense that he has been haunted from a very early age, but we never know the source of that haunting. This perspective allowed Skelton to take an almost ferocious approach to his vocal work, making it clear that Grimes does not deserve the sympathy of the audience.

The only really sympathetic character is the widow and schoolmistress Ellen Orford, sung by soprano Elza van den Heever. She has a personal ethic that sees good in everyone and tries to mine that good from Grimes’ dark exterior. Van den Heever’s interpretation penetratingly disclosed the intensity of her motives, suggesting that her understanding of the children she taught was her primary asset in dealing with the adults she had to face every day.

The remaining characters are, in many respects, types that serve to advance the narrative. For the most part, however, the performances rescued them all from being reduced to cardboard stereotypes. Bass-baritone John Relyea fleshed out Swallow’s authority figure with all of its most officious qualities. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, on the other hand, took Ned Keene’s more “established” position as apothecary and played up its dark side as the laudanum supplier for the town gossip Mrs. Sedley ( mezzo Nancy Maultsby). What wisdom there was resided in retired merchant skipper Captain Balstrode (baritone Alan Opie) and “Auntie” (mezzo Ann Murray), who runs the inn The Boar and keeps her male customers entertained with two “nieces” (soprano Nikki Einfeld and mezzo Abigail Nims). Finally, religious life is skewered not only by the hymn-singing chorus but also through the Anglican conservatism of Rector Horace Adams (tenor Kim Begley) and the Methodist protestations of Bob Boles (tenor Richard Cox).

All this made for a major offering at Davies. The only weakness came with the use of video projections designed by Adam Larsen to compensate for the lack of sets. Larsen’s images often involved muddled overlays, making it difficult to discern just what he was trying to show and how he was showing it. Unfortunately, thinking about such matters amounted to an unpleasant distraction from the music, which was far more worthy of attention. The fact is that one could have dispensed with the panoramic screens and the images they supported without in any way compromising the sense of place that was conveyed with such penetrating realism by both the instrumentalists and the vocalists.

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