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S.F. Symphony's brilliant production of 'Peter Grimes'

Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes
Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes
Clive Barda/English National Opera

San Francisco Symphony's season-closing concerts


For a production so uniformly outstanding - and greeted by such unanimous critical rave - as the San Francisco Symphony's season-closing concerts of the semi-staged Britten opera, "Peter Grimes" (, I'd like to emphasize something not yet hailed beyond all the gloriously obvious:

- Michael Tilson Thomas's mastery of the superb score
- The orchestra's impassioned and precise play through three acts, squeezed into under three hours including intermission
- Ragnar Bohlin's Symphony Chorus invoking every mode and mood of the sea that's the setting and essence of the work
- A wonderful cast of mostly "homegrown" singers, Merola and Adler alumni, led by Stuart Skelton unsurpassably (since the days of Jon Vickers) in the title role; Elza van den Heever as the Wagnerian-lyrical Ellen Orford; Nancy Maultsby, Eugene Brancoveanu, John Relyea, Kevin Langan, and members of the chorus in brief solo roles

The not yet sufficiently observed aspect of this "Grimes" for the ages (incongruously denied recording or broadcast, so the Sunday matinee is the last chance to hear it) is what is mercifully not obvious.

Although the stage above the orchestra and singers is dominated by what director James Darrah describes as "a very large, panoramic projection screen that starts at floor level and wraps around the orchestra in a semi-circle - it goes up into the air and breaks open where the chorus is, and then continues up like a big curved sail."

Thanks to Darrah and video designer Adam Larsen, the beauty of this panoramic screen is that it is NOT overused, not intruding. There are faint images of the town and, mostly, of the sea, but these disciplined, thoughtful artists refrained from what most people would do with an expensive toy - and call attention away from what is important.

San Francisco Opera, which had planned "Grimes" for the Britten centennial but couldn't afford it, had a wonderful production under the baton of Donald Runnicles, but the SF Symphony's SEMI-staged version is more than equal to it because of it musical-choral-vocal-dramatic brilliance.

The joined second and third acts are overwhelming and at the end of the performance, the riotous standing ovation also represented an act of shaking off being stunned by this combination of pain and beauty. I am going back.