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San Francisco Symphony: Peter Grimes.
Tenor Stuart Skelton (right) as Peter Grimes. Photo: STEFAN COHEN

Review: SF Symphony’s Peter Grimes, Opus 33

Jeanne Powell’s review “Peter Grimes,” part of The San Francisco Symphony’s centennial celebration of Benjamin Britten.

Michael Tilson Thomas conductor
Stuart Skelton tenor (Peter Grimes)
Elza van den Heever soprano (Ellen Orford)
Alan Opie baritone (Captain Balstrode)
Ann Murray mezzo-soprano (Auntie)
Nancy Maultsby mezzo-soprano (Mrs. Sedley)
Nikki Einfeld soprano (Niece 1)
Abigail Nims mezzo-soprano (Niece 2)
Richard Cox tenor (Bob Boles)
Kim Begley tenor (Horace Adams)

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), the San Francisco Symphony (with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting) has chosen to celebrate the music of this British composer. The tributes began with a performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” in November 2013 and continued into June 2014 with a semi-staged production of Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes.”

SF Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo: STEFAN COHEN

SF Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo: STEFAN COHEN

Composed in 1945, “Peter Grimes” is considered the greatest English language opera of the 20th century. How did Britten come to write this opera? During the summer of 1941, he read an E. M. Forster article about the poet George Crabbe. After reading Crabbe’s book, “The Borough,” which included a poem about an unsavory English fisherman who hired impoverished youth as apprentices and treated them harshly, Britten began work on the opera with librettist Montagu Slater.

Here’s the grisly part of the story which intrigued the composer. The first apprentice hired to work on a fishing boat died at sea, and so did his successor. A third young apprentice also died under Grimes’ supervision. Finally Grimes was hauled to court in the small village where he lived, and was forbidden to enlist any more apprentices. It is said that Grimes died insane, haunted by the ghosts of the boys who died in his service.

Benjamin Britten was very much aware of music’s continuing capacity to communicate. His songs and operas powerfully explore a rich set of themes: innocence of childhood; the creeping, all-pervasive nature of evil; the workings of power; the experience of otherness; social connections; and barriers to open communication. In “Peter Grimes” we have the innocence of childhood, possible abuse of power by the fisherman, the experience of otherness as Grimes is isolated from the social fabric of the village.

The opera begins with an inquest into the death of young William Spode, apprentice to the fisherman Peter Grimes (tenor Stuart Skelton). The lawyer Swallow (bass-baritone John Relyea) calls various witnesses. A verdict of accidental death does not satisfy the villagers, who regard Grimes as a violent criminal. They become openly antagonistic toward him. His only friend, the widowed schoolmistress Ellen Orford (soprano Elza van den Heever), collects another apprentice to work on the fishing boat. Talk at the local pub remains hostile. Pub owner Auntie (mezzo-soprano Ann Murray) is sympathetic to the widow Orford, but the men of the village march to Grimes’ home to confront him. Grimes is not there. Local gossip Mrs. Sedley (mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby) keeps the villagers stirred up. Resigned to what seems inevitable, retired sea captain Balstrode (baritone Alan Opie) forms a manhunt. Grimes turns up on his own, unhinged, with another apprentice gone missing. Balstrode advises Grimes to go to sea and sink his boat (and himself).

 San Francisco Symphony: Peter Grimes.

Semi-staged production of Peter Grimes at the San Francisco Symphony (James Darrah, director; Adam Larsen, projection designer); SF Symphony Chorus in the terrace above the stage. Photo: STEFAN COHEN

Staging by the SF symphony is imaginative and holds the attention of the audience. Center stage is occupied by the orchestra, with the chorus arrayed in back. Primary singers perform on the sides, to left and right of orchestra. Toward the end of the opera, the primary singers move down center aisle through the audience and up to center stage. Between the orchestra and the chorus, a vast panoramic screen rises “like a big curved sail” according to one description, which captures the setting of an old-world fishing village and the volatility of the sea. James Darrah was stage director and Cameron Jaye Mock was lighting designer. Adam Larsen was video designer and Michael John Egan was stage manager. Ragnar Bohlin directed the SF symphony chorus.

Several of the opera’s orchestral passages are powerful recurrent reminders of the critical role that the sea plays in the lives of the characters in the fishing village, so much so that the “Four Sea Interludes” from the opera quickly became a stand-alone suite and are now part of symphonic repertory everywhere.

A tale of love, madness and mysterious deaths. A seafaring outcast, troubled and eccentric, who leaves you wondering about his guilt or innocence. A rough fishing village on the North Sea coast of England transforms from concerned citizens into vigilantes seeking some form of justice outside the law. And an uneasy awareness of moral haziness as part of the human condition pervades the atmosphere.

“Peter Grimes” was Benjamin Britten’s first operatic success, and remains what the New York Times called a “true operatic masterpiece.” This series of four performances brings the current SF symphony season to an impressive end.

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