Reviewed by Judy Richter
San Francisco Opera's production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes truly embodies the concept of opera as music theater. The concept starts with Britten's brilliant 1945 score and Montagu Slater's intriguing libretto, based on "The Borough," a poem by George Crabbe. Then the SFO production team and cast step in, creating a thought-provoking operatic experience.
SFO music director Donald Runnicles leads the SFO Orchestra in a masterful performance. Together they accompany the singers and chorus with sensitivity and endow the orchestral interludes with a power and drama that stand alone yet advance the action. The interlude preceding Act 3 is exceptional, creating an almost unbearable tension to foreshadow the tragedy to come.
Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus is magnificent in Britten's great choral scoring. The chorus also creates the collective character of a village that lives and dies by the sea and villagers whose tolerance for individuality has narrow limits.
Stage director John Copley deserves credit for the latter accomplishment as well as the fine acting he has elicited from the principal singers. These principals also sing well, adding to the enjoyment. American tenor Thomas Moser creates a well-rounded portrait of the doomed Peter Grimes, a fisherman who is cast under a cloud of suspicion because of the death of his young apprentice at sea. Even though he is legally exonerated, the cloud remains because he is so gruff and contrary. Although he dreams of a better life and is willing to work toward it, his character undoes him.
His one hope is kindly schoolmistress Ellen Orford, portrayed by Australian soprano Deborah Riedel. Ellen braves the villagers' scorn out of compassion for Peter, but he turns against her, too. Although Riedel's voice has a steely edge on her high notes (she started her career as a mezzo), her portrayal is so sympathetic and loving that one can overlook any vocal imperfections. American bass-baritone Alan Held as Captain Balstrode, a retired merchant skipper, also creates a sympathetic character, a man willing to help Peter and offer him wise counsel.
American baritone Theodore Baerg as Ned Keene, the apothecary, puts a bit of the bemused rogue in his portrayal, while American mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook creates a wonderfully sniffish Mrs. Sedley, the village busybody. Her male counterpart is American tenor Matthew Lord as Bob Boles. He's an annoying Bible-thumper who nevertheless makes some cogent points in railing against the cruel treatment of children in workhouses, where Peter gets his apprentices. British mezzo-soprano Claire Powell is a world-wise Auntie, proprietress of the village pub. American sopranos Tammy Jenkins and Peggy Kriha Dye are archly coy as her "nieces." Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea is noteworthy as Hobson, a carrier. All of them sing quite well.
Adding to the dramatic impact of this most satisfying production are Carl Toms' sets, Tanya Moiseiwitsch's costumes and Thomas J. Munn's lighting.
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