22 January 2013

The San Francisco Symphony battles the Boyg

Last Thursday I was at Davies Hall for the first time this season, for San Francisco Symphony's Peer Gynt program, which combined actors and singers and video projections in a traversal of Ibsen's great play, along with some of the orchestral music written for it (including sections of Grieg's famous score, written at Ibsen's request, and more recent pieces by the late Alfred Schnittke and by Robin Holloway, who was there in person). This program had jumped out at me when the season was announced about a year ago. Ibsen's play, the last he wrote in verse before turning to the prose plays that helped create modern theater, isn't staged very often, mostly because (like its obvious model, Goethe's Faust) it's very long and very weird, combining realistic social drama, the supernatural, political satire, dream and fantasy sequences, myth-making and intimate psychological analysis, working as both biography and allegory.

Key Ibsen themes run through it: an intense examination of the roles men and women play in relation to each other (and how natural urges battle against social structures), the influence of one generation on another, the role of the dreamer or idealist in a workaday world, the danger and the necessity of one's illusions and delusions. Peer is a fascinating character: sort of an Everyman (which doesn't mean he's likable, exactly, though I don't find him unsympathetic) as well as an outsider; a dreamer who achieves (and loses) great worldly success; he's a habitual liar who spins out great fantastic adventures that enthrall his listeners, even those who realize he's repeating stories they told him, but he also can tell blunt and cruel truths that others don't want to hear (as when he runs off with Ingrid on her wedding day; shortly thereafter he tires of her and she berates him, but he points out that she was completely willing to run off with him and he doesn't owe her anything - if she expected him to turn into a solid bourgeois husband, well, who's the delusional dreamer in that pair?). He's a selfish man who is constantly, desperately, seeking to hold on to his self.

I have seen the play performed live: ACT did it some time in the early to mid-1970s. I believe it was either complete or nearly complete (I think it was around four hours, which was a bit much for the other high school students with whom I saw it). At this point I don't remember much about the production except for the scene in which Peer's mother Ase dies. And now available on DVD there's a version starring a seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston in his first film. Directed by David Bradley, it's mostly silent with Grieg as the soundtrack. It's an amateur film, shot in Michigan and featuring mostly local college students. It's surprisingly effective, and Heston is very good: lots of times I'd look at the other actors and think, you're really an American college student from the 1940s in fancy dress, but I always thought of him as Peer. There's also a ballet version, which is where the Schnittke music comes from. In short, it's a story that, for various reasons, mostly practical, is often shortened or adapted.

I re-read it before the Symphony show. I'm never sure if that's an advantage or not in these situations: it brings fresh knowledge and context to what I'm seeing, but also makes me maybe too aware of what's been cut or changed. Quite a lot was cut to fit the story within a normal symphonic evening of slightly over two hours. In the spirit of the original play, the Symphony's performance was wide-ranging and episodic, even a bit disconnected; disappointing decisions jostled next to brilliant successes; sometimes it seemed like a play with eruptions of music, and other times like an orchestral piece interrupted by dialogue. I gathered from those around me on Thursday that there was a wide range of reactions, from enthralled to appalled. I've dropped out of most discussions and held off on reading most  reviews until I posted this, but I gather that they cover as wide a range. On the whole I enjoyed the evening quite a lot, despite some reservations. But if the evening wasn't a total success, it was at least the right sort of failure (well, I didn't think it was a failure at all, but you see what I mean): ambitious, thoughtful, new, and creative. Peer Gynt was a particularly bold choice for the Symphony, since I suspect it appeals more to serious theater-goers than to symphony-goers, and there is less overlap among those audiences than one might expect or hope for.

The things I didn't like: the actors were brutally amplified. I've complained about amplification frequently; it flattens the sound and tends to make people sit back rather than lean forward. I do understand that Davies is acoustically tricky and there might be problems with unmiked spoken dialogue in that cavernous space, but two people talking in a normal tone should not be louder than a symphony orchestra. The smashing sound of a large orchestra is one that, sadly, we can't appreciate as much as nineteenth-century audiences did, since all you have to do now is turn the dial up. But at times the volume of the actors shoved the orchestra too far into the background.

Having embraced the evil technology of amplification, the Symphony really should embrace the good technology of surtitles. I've never understood why they don't use them regularly. When the chorus joined in as awesome trolls in Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, it was unclear if they were singing words that meant something or just troll-like sounds.The dialogue was in English, but when Solveig sang, as when the trolls sang, it's back to the original Norwegian, and - well, how many fluent Norwegian speakers are in the usual Bay Area audience? At least Joelle Harvey's lovely singing was not amplified. (Solveig is basically Peer Gynt's Marguerite, to continue the Faust analogy, with the added acerbic twist that at the end, during his ambiguous redemption (or, possibly, his indefinitely deferred damnation), it is strongly implied that the reason he has no Self is because he wasn't more like her - selflessly loving and giving; as several religious traditions hold, in order to gain yourself, you must lose yourself.)

I wish the play-pruning hadn't been so severe in some sections; in particular, Peer's dead father, a genial drunkard who pissed away the family fortune, is important to understanding him, and most of the references to him were gone. There was enough with his mother to give you a sense of their relationship, so Ase's death had the power it should have. But most of the play after her death up until the appearance of the mysterious Button-Molder was gone. It was replaced by what was basically a tone-poem by Holloway, which I enjoyed, but if the action is cut then the music makes its own journey, which may or may not be the journey on which Ibsen sent his protagonist. Having the play fresh in my mind, and assisted by the beautiful projections, I could tell when Peer was in the desert or on his ocean voyage, but Ibsen's words shape and suggest the meanings of those travels in a way you wouldn't necessarily get from the music unless you knew the play well. I enjoyed Holloway's piece, which slips easily among sounds and moods, but it was a bit out-sized: it replaced roughly a third of the play, and at around 25 minutes it was easily the longest single piece of music in the performance. There was a repeated melody that sounded to me like a bit straight out of Peter and the Wolf. When the Symphony performed excerpts from Holloway's opera Clarissa, the fire was represented by a very extensive quotation of Walkure's Magic Fire music, so that sort of quotation is a thing Holloway does, but I'm not sure what was going on there.

When the Woman in Green (the Troll-King's daughter, played by Peabody Southwell) re-appears with Peer's son, she is supposed to be an ugly old woman - that's why Peer doesn't recognize her at first. But on Thursday she was just as uber-hot as in her first appearance, so it didn't make sense that Peer claimed not to recognize her. I wouldn't have had the Boyg chuckle with horror-movie menace: that gives it a certain malevolent definition, and I think the enigmatic blankness of the formless, unseen Boyg is what makes it so terrifying and haunting. (Is it something inside Peer, or outside? Is it trying to destroy him with its advice, or help him?) The program note claims that the Boyg also appears as the Button-Molder, the lean priest, and the ghastly passenger on Peer's voyage home: it's unclear from the phrasing if this is specifically Schnittke's interpretation or is being put forward as inherent in Ibsen. I think it's a possible but not a necessary interpretation, and personally I feel the Boyg is separate in function and meaning from those other characters (the ghastly ghostly passenger, by the way, fell victim to the extensive cutting).

On to the things I did like. The actors, despite having to work against the amplification, were all strong. Ben Huber showed Peer's uncertainty and longing as well as his headstrong fantastical ways, and moved convincingly from wild boy to cynical man. Rose Portillo as his mother captured Ase's love for and frustration with and complaining about and defense of her wayward boy. In addition to the ones I've already named, there was also good work by Jesse Merlin as Solveig's Father and the Troll King, Brian Ruppenkamp as the Brat and the Lean One, Mark Deakins as the Boyg and the Button-Molder, Janice Lancaster Larsen as Ingrid, and Keith Perry, Alexandra Sessler, and Dianne M. Terp as wedding guests. James Darrah was director and production designer, and Adam Larsen was video designer.

I loved the chance to hear so much of the possible Peer music; I knew the Grieg but not the others. It was always immediately clear which of the three composers was being performed, and that eclecticism is very much in the spirit of the play. I loved Schnittke's eerie vaporous Boyg music. Grieg's Morning Mood sounded as fresh and lovely as sunrise on a spring meadow, the way it was meant to sound before it became a cartoon signifier of spring dawn. It was great to hear the Hall of the Mountain King with chorus. I loved the vast irregular white shape on which the projections were shown; it looked like both mountains and mist. The projections themselves were striking and well done, moving from black-and-white to color and from church interior to lush forest to vast ocean and many points in between. The long narrow stage space was used well, with the occasional addition of action up the aisles.

Mostly, I just really love that they did this at all.

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