In Review > North America

Peter Grimes

San Francisco Symphony

In Review SFO Peter Grimes hdl 714
Richard Cox as Bob Boles, Eugene Brancoveanu as Ned Keene, Alan Opie as Captain Balstrode, Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes, Nikki Einfeld, Ann Murray as Auntie and Abigail Nims in James Darrah's semi-staged production of Peter Grimes with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas
Photo by Stefan Cohen
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Soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford with Skelton
Photo by Stefan Cohen
In Review Peter Grimes lg 2 714
San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas
Photo by Stefan Cohen

The high point of San Francisco's summer opera season wasn't at the War Memorial Opera House but just across the street at Davies Symphony Hall, where Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony capped their season-ending Britten Centennial Celebration with the composer's Peter Grimes. On June 26, the first of three performances, Tilson Thomas led his fine-tuned orchestra, a superb chorus of more than 100 voices and a red-blooded cast of singing actors in a thrilling semi-staged realization of Britten's 1945 masterpiece. Stage director James Darrah, who also designed the effective nineteenth-century-style costumes, employed an elegant, flowing movement scheme, bringing singers on and off from the wings, through the audience, and down from upper tiers. Every detail of the show was thoughtfully conceived. Cameron Jaye Mock's scenic and lighting designs included a black thrust platform extending beyond the lip of the stage, giving the singers ample playing space in front of the podium; Adam Larsen's images of the fog-swept Suffolk village and the pitiless sea were projected on large curved screens wrapped around the stage behind the orchestra.

Stuart Skelton's magnetic performance captured Grimes's blunt, looming physicality and wounded fragility in equal measure. Skelton's tenor is astonishingly virile — stunning in its power at forte, softly sensitive in "Now the Great Bear and Pleiades" and honeyed in the lyrical passages describing his dream of love for Ellen Orford. His early scenes projected a blunt, defiant misanthrope given to quicksilver flashes of rage, and his final scene — a wrenching descent into madness — was shattering. Soprano Elza van den Heever was a brilliant Ellen, deploying her focused, penetrating instrument with urgency upon discovering the Boy's bruises in Act II, and singing with ineffable beauty and poignancy in the embroidery aria.

The supporting cast was uniformly strong in its suggestion of the town's mix of "hot desires" and censorious blame. Alan Opie's large, sturdy baritone was an asset for the role of the retired sea captain Balstrode. Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu made a fine showing as an articulate, insinuating Ned Keene, and bass-baritone John Relyea was a nimble, resonant Mr. Swallow. Ann Murray's Auntie, with Nikki Einfeld and Abigail Nims as the First and Second Nieces, blended beautifully with van den Heever in the women's quartet, and Nancy Maultsby lent Mrs. Sedley an apt mix of acid and pathos. Richard Cox (Bob Boles), Kim Begley (Horace Adams) and Kevin Langan (Hobson) sang with distinction. Rafael Karpa-Wilson was a tender Boy. Ragnar Bohlin's chorus sang with admirable unity and raw, hair-raising power.  

At the center of it all was Tilson Thomas, whose forays into semi-staged performances in recent years — Der Fliegende Holländer and Fidelio among them — have affirmed his credentials in opera. Even so, this performance was extraordinary. The conductor strove for, and achieved, remarkable clarity from his players, illuminating the nuance and unrelenting invention in Britten's majestic score and supporting the singers throughout. The ebb and flow of the interludes came across with stark specificity, and the ensemble numbers roared. At the end of the performance, the conductor and his forces assembled onstage, and the audience roared back its approval. Tilson Thomas turned to the audience, looking slightly dazed. He'd just been through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So had the audience. It was an unforgettable night. spacer


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