Last Friday I was at the second performance of Peter Grimes, the San Francisco Symphony's spectacular season-ender. I've seen Grimes on stage, and I've heard recordings, and I knew the opera's role in Britten's life and in the history of British music. But on Friday I felt not only as if I were experiencing these things for the first time, but experiencing them with tidal-wave force. I almost don't know what else to say, so entire and complete was the performance.
The stage at Davies Hall had been altered with an extended performance area jutting out front and center into the audience and with wavy-shaped screens circling the back of the stage. Semi-abstract black-and-white videos of the sea and sea-side villages played on the screens, and the soloists were in costume and made entrances and exits. The chorus was mostly dressed in subdued black, as they usually are, and mostly seated above the action, like a community sitting in judgment (until the final scene, when they spread out through the aisles of the auditorium, making us part of the gathering mob). These simple, partially "realistic" but mostly stylized elements brought the village to vivid life. Here's my great compliment to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas: I didn't notice him. He was right before me, clearly visible and central the whole time (I was on the right, in the second row (first half) and first row (second half), but everything he and the orchestra did sounded so right and so elemental that I was barely conscious of them. And that's how it should be -- that's how emotionally compelling the performance was; I wasn't thinking, "nice solo there" or whatever, just "this is how this must sound"; "this is not a 'sea interlude,' this is the sea."
Stuart Skelton was a splendid and anguished Grimes, stubborn and awkward and yet lyrical in his visionary flashes and even in his heart-breaking attempts to fit in to the village he can't bring himself to leave (perhaps as with Hester Prynne, he has come to define himself by their rejection of him and his determination to show them up at their own game). Elza van den Heever, a voice as pure and strong as her presence, was the hopeful yet fatalistic Ellen Orford. The whole cast was superb: Alan Opie as the tough-minded, not unkindly Balstrode; Ann Murray as worldly-wise Auntie, with Nikki Einfeld and Abigail Nims as her nieces; Nancy Maultsby as the laudanum-addled, dream-befuddled hissing spinster, Mrs Sedley; Eugene Brancoveanu as lively Ned Keene, Richard Cox as Bob Boles, Kim Begley as Horace Adams, John Relyea as Mr Swallow, Kevin Langan as Hobson -- not a weak link anywhere. Even the non-speaking/non-singing role of the new apprentice boy was absolutely heart-breaking as played by Rafael Karpa-Wilson, and the smallest roles were performed with authority by members of the SF Symphony Chorus. Symphony audiences already know how superb the chorus is. The chorus members are particularly important in this opera, in which they play a key role as the villagers in opposition to Grimes. And they didn't just sing with abstract beauty, they embodied the village. (James Darrah was stage director and costume designer.)
I don't usually rave like this. It's exhausting!
I was struck by how nuanced the opera is, how ambiguous and troubling in ways not usually covered by the usual plot summaries and capsule descriptions. I was more impressed than ever with Britten's artistic vision and courage in creating such a work in the aftermath of England's victory in World War II, when he himself, fairly newly returned from the United States, was still looked upon with some suspicion for his pacifism, his homosexuality, and what was seen as his desertion of England in the early days of the war. He had to return, a permanent outsider, to the uncomprehending land he loved whose opposition defined him. This performance was part of the Symphony's celebration of Britten's centennial (which technically was last year, but symphony seasons overlap the calendar year). But what a reminder of Britten's continuing and growing relevance and power. The hall was packed.
A couple of minor things: sometimes the action was staged in the back, and even though the singers were on a raised platform they were sometimes difficult or impossible to see through the orchestra if you were in the front rows or the side seats. But you know what? Forget it -- even when I couldn't see the performers, I felt I was in the village with them. And, of course, it's ridiculous (from the point of view of many audience members, and potential members) to start a performance, especially one that lasts three hours, at 8:00 on a work night. But I've said enough about that sort of thing elsewhere. I did wonder beforehand, as I wasted the many hours between end of work and start of performance, if I should bother to go. Luckily I did. What a triumph for all involved. The ovations were long, enthusiastic, and well-deserved. Grimes will never be the same for me. This is why we keep going back to the theater.