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A welcome high point

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
11/17/1998 -  and 22 November, 2,5,8,11, and 13 December 1998
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Thomas Moser (Peter Grimes), Deborah Riedel (Ellen Orford), Alan Held (Captain Balstrode), Stafford Dean (Swallow), Theodore Baerg (Ned Keene), Matthew Lord (Bob Boles), John Reylea (Hobson), Claire Powell (Auntie), Catherine Cook (Mrs. Sedley), Tammy Jenkins and Peggy Kriha Dye (Nieces), Gary Rideout (Reverend Adams)
Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles, conductor
John Copley (Director)

For only the third time in its history, the San Francisco Opera presented Benjamin Britten’s first masterpiece Peter Grimes. The searing power of the tale of the rough, stubborn fisherman at odds with the rest of the fishing village and his own worst enemy received a first rate revival centered around Thomas Moser’s gripping performance in the title role and Donald Runnicles masterful reading of the evocative, powerful score.

Moser’s Peter Grimes succeeded in conveying both the brutal, insensitive facets of the character as well as his poetic soul, dreaming of acceptance, respect and a peaceful life with Ellen. Moser’s voice is not a conventionally beautiful one and at times the tone in the upper register was harsh and strained. But he so tightly integrated the sound and the sense that the sense of tension and anguish Grimes experiences was thereby heightened. Moser could also create hauntingly beautiful phrases of introspective pathos revealing the inner torment. In his "What harbor shelters peace?", Moser revealed Peter’s naked loneliness with painful directness. In all it was a stark, heart-rending portrait.

As his one friend and the object of his few affections, Ellen Orford, Deborah Riedel created an equally strong, beautifully understated woman. Riedel developed both Ellen’s warm, gentle qualities that make her at once so sympathetic and so admirable but also explored the resiliency and tenacity that makes Ellen’s friendship and compassion for Grimes possible while still maintaining the community’s respect. Riedel’s soprano is a full, pure instrument capable of soaring easily in the ensembles, caressing phrases with effortless, expert diction and smooth legato, making sense and beauty of the language and music.

The third star of the production was undoubtedly the superb San Francisco Opera Chorus. At once a collection of remarkable individual performers and a tightly knit ensemble capable of a sonorous sound with a full range of dynamics and emotions. Peter Grimes takes full advantage of the Chorus’s capabilities and the Chorus rose superbly to the challenge throughout the performance.

Before the performance started, an announcement was made that Alan Held was suffering from an illness but would sing anyway. He need not have apologized for his performance. His Captain Balstrode was a complete portrait, warmly sung and deeply felt.

This production of Peter Grimes also benefited from characterful performances in several of the supporting roles. Stafford Dean’s Swallow, Theodore Baerg’ s Ned Keene, and Matthew Lord’s Bob Boles all had fine moments of both singing and acting; always contributing to the drama with a keen sense of balance and proportion. John Reylea’s stoic Hobson, Claire Powell’s jovial Auntie, Catherine Cook’s malicious Mrs. Sedley, Gary Rideout’s Reverend Adams and Tammy Jenkins and Peggy Kriha Dye as the two nieces show the depth and strength of the company’s young artists with solid, noteworthy performances that would do credit to any production and were welcome assets in this one.

Under Runnicles’ guidance in the pit, no aspect of the score was overlooked or take for granted. The power and majesty of the ocean, the brutality and vulnerability of Peter, the humor and the viscous pettiness of the townsfolk, the compassion of Balstrode, even the changes in the weather Britten so brilliantly evokes; Runnicles brings them all out with powerful emotional intensity and technical fluency.

Stage director John Copley completed the total impact of Peter Grimes with an integrated, simply staged production that kept the principals in focus, the drama clear and cleanly played out and a series of finely drawn characters from the principals to the individual chorus members.

Carl Toms set and Tania Moiseiwitsch’s costumes suit the spare, economic style of Britten’s score with a realistic but not excessively detailed design in muted colors and simple, solid lines. The rough-hewn timbers, coarse fabrics and heavy, solid look of the settings all captured the atmosphere suggested in Britten’s score. Thomas J. Munn’s evocative lighting summoned the varied moods and weather changes of the fishing village ranging from the clear sun-filled dawn following a storm to the foggy, murky night that envelopes the town and Peter’s mind.

Productions of Peter Grimes have been infrequent in San Francisco, but so rewarding a production as this has made the long wait well worth while and a welcome high point in the current season.

Kelly Snyder



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