United States Britten, Peter Grimes: Soloists, San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 26.6.2014 (HS)
Director and production designer: James Darrah
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Elza van den Heever
Captain Balstrode: Alan Opie
Auntie: Ann Murray
Mrs. Sedley: Nancy Maultsby
Niece 1: Nikki Einfeld
Niece 2: Abigail Nims
Bob Boles: Richard Cox
Horace Adams: Kim Begley
Ned Keene: Eugene Brancoveanu
Mr. Swallow: John Relyea
Hobson: Kevin Langan
Given that Stuart Skelton has sung the role of Peter Grimes at English National Opera and in concert with the London Philharmonic, his experience showed in a stunningly complete performance in San Francisco Symphony’s sendoff to the Benjamin Britten centennial year. Smartly redecorated for the occasion, the Davies Symphony Hall stage itself contributed to this powerful production of the seminal opera.
Heard Thursday in the first of three performances, this beautifully measured offering was full of sharply etched singing, acting, and just enough visual suggestion to make it all come to life. Director and production design James Darrah draped the stage on three sides with two parallel white scrims, torn at the edges, one above and the other below the chorus arrayed in its loft seats behind the orchestra. Black and white projections (designed by Adam Larsen) sketched the Borough’s setting and the sea—the images moving only during the famous Sea Interludes. The stage followed the bend of the scrims and extended in front of the orchestra. The color palette of the costumes, mostly gray and black, got some color from Grimes’ grimy blue kit and Ellen Orford’s rich green dress.
This arrangement aptly expressed Britten’s approach by making the orchestra central while placing the singers in great position to act their roles to the full extent. And no one took fuller advantage of it than Skelton. While everyone else in the cast wore clean clothing, he stood apart visually in a stained and disheveled mismatched costume, underlining Britten’s music that makes clear he is the outcast of a village.
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ take on the music, clean and as bracing as the North Sea air, could have given us a bit more thrust, playing more with the ebb and flow of the sea music, but it painted the scenes well and shone a spotlight on the singers. Although the major beneficiary was Skelton, other standouts included soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher who tries to help Grimes, and bass-baritone John Relyea, a bit of luxury casting as Mr. Swallow, the town mayor reluctantly pulled into a mob rising up against Grimes.
(All three singers have long and distinguished relationships with this orchestra and conductor. Skelton recorded Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the ensemble, and van den Heever was in the cast of the Mahler Eighth Symphony. Relyea made his debut with SFS way back in 1998.)
Skelton deployed a pure, clear tenor, seamless in its ability to float high notes and still get power into the middle and lower range. His musical portrayal of Grimes relied less on the feral muscle of Jon Vickers’ approach, hewing closer to the original voice Britten had in mind, Peter Pears, but with a more beautiful sound. In the opening measures of “Great Bear and Pleiades,” his monologue in the pub, his gossamer pianissimo above the staff still had a creamy richness, and the voice grew to immense power as the music built. His final scene, in rumpled jersey with the right sleeve pulled up and the other hanging over his left hand, wrenched the emotions with exquisite tone and quiet intensity.
Van den Heever matched the tenor in beauty and clarity of sound, centering her voice with precision while still investing every line with emotional punch. This was especially noticeable in the famous Embroidery Aria, but also in the final scene as she watched Grimes’ sanity — and her hopes for a domestic life — evaporate before her eyes.
Relyea, with his resonance and vocal allure, made Mr. Swallow such a compelling character that he overshadowed all the other male villagers in the cast. As Balstrode, Grimes’ only other real friend, baritone Alan Opie fashioned a stolid character and sang his music with relatively modest inflection. Bass Kevin Langan, long a fixture in feature roles at San Francisco Opera across the street, articulated the carter Hobson’s music nicely, however, and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu made the pharmacist Ned Keene into a flesh-and-blood character.
On the female side, Nancy Maultsby, as the busybody Mrs. Sedley, got more low-register richness into her moments than Ann Murray did with her lightish mezzo-soprano as Auntie. Murray still managed to breathe life into the homey, no-nonsense publican and provider of comfort to randy men of the village in the form of her two nieces, sung with generic charm by soprano Nikki Einfeld and mezzo Abigail Nims. They did look lovely in their light blue draped gowns.
The other star of any Peter Grimes, of course, is the chorus. The orchestra’s choir projected words with their customary clarity and voiced everything from feathery off-stage moans and calls to full-throated mob hatred with musical force.
In sum, this was a fully realized, musically rich Peter Grimes. If it fell a half-step short of full emotional wallop, it paid its highest honor, appropriately enough, to Britten’s extraordinary score. Every instrumental color and every pictorial flourish came through brilliantly—a great way to complete a year of honoring the twentieth century’s most important opera composer.