The Best of Britten

James Darrah
Wall Street Journal

The composer's finest work will always be "Peter Grimes."

By David Littlejohn

The world's symphonies, music ensembles and opera houses may be overcompensating for insufficient attention to the music of Benjamin Britten by offering us a glut of it during his centennial. One of his most often-performed works so far during these celebrations, with 182 reported performances in the past year and a half, was the "War Requiem" of 1961. A performance at the San Francisco Symphony last November (on the week of Britten's actual birthday), conducted by Semyon Bychkov, was the most moving and memorable work I have ever heard in a concert hall. "The Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes" (500-plus performances), were given here with waterfront visuals last month, as well as a melting rendition of his 1943 "Serenade." According to his publishers, Britten's works—including major productions of his five important operas—have been publicly performed more than 4,000 times so far in 2013-14. But the prize for the best Britten will always go to "Peter Grimes" (1945), the greatest opera of the 20th century.

Since 2013, there have been at least 10 fully staged productions of this gripping, challenging, musically ingenious, multimessage work—Britten's first major opera—as well as semistaged orchestral-vocal versions in New York and London. The Aldeburgh Festival performed it three times on the beach there in June 2013 (with prerecorded orchestra), and made a film of the result. Aldeburgh, once a small, poor fishing village on the Northeast English coast, was not only the inspiration for the opera's setting, but long the home base of Britten and his life-partner (and first Peter Grimes), Peter Pears.

Since 1973, I have been seized and troubled by various Peters, from Jess Thomas through Jon Vickers, Thomas Moser, Philip Langridge and recently Anthony Dean Griffey—a tender, confused brute of a Peter at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008.

One of the strongest, most theatrically imaginative, musically and dramatically compelling productions of the work I have seen was given last week not by the San Francisco Opera but by the San Francisco Symphony across the street, in an almost fully staged production conceived by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and director James Darrah and designer Cameron Mock, with projections by Adam Larson. It featured a flawless chorus of 100—the voice of the spiteful townspeople—conducted from on high by Ragnar Bohlin. Stuart Skelton sang and acted Peter, the despised outcast, strongly, clearly and well—if not quite as powerfully as Mr. Griffey. Elza van den Heever, as Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher who trusts, loves and tries to save him ("I'll marry Ellen!"), touched greatness in some of the higher passages of her arias and duets with Peter.

Beyond the two principals, there are nine named and distinctive singing actors among the citizens of the Borough, as George Crabbe called the village in a narrative poem of 1810 based on the citizens of his hometown. The story of Peter—a "savage monster" in the original, who made wretched slaves of the orphan boys he bought—comes from Letter XXII of Crabbe's "The Borough": "He wanted some obedient boy to stand / And bear the blow of his outrageous hand / And hoped to find in some propitious hour / A feeling creature subject to his power." Before he goes mad and dies, he has enslaved three little boys, all of whom perish.

Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, reduced the dead apprentices to two, made it clear both deaths were accidents, and gave Peter a feeling heart as well as a brutal streak and an unhealthy obsession. They also gave him two stalwart friends in Ellen and Capt. Balstrode, a fair-minded retired merchant seaman. In the end, convinced that the village will forever hate him as a boy-killer, Balstrode persuades Peter to take out his boat and drown himself in it.

What was remarkable about this cast, which included only a few known names (Alan Opie as Balstrode, John Relyea as lawyer Swallow, Kevin Langan as the carter Hobson), was that there was not a weak link among them. All of them sang (or declaimed) and acted their roles as if they were a perfect ensemble of villagers that just happened to have an orchestra in the middle. Everyone (except Auntie's two tarty nieces) was dressed in dour Aldeburgh black or brown.

The meaning and magic of this production depended as much on the designs (by Mr. Darrah, Mr. Mock and Mr. Larson) as on the music—although the singing (dominated by the impeccable chorus) was uniformly fine. Mr. Tilson Thomas—from an island in the middle of the stage—conducted Britten's complex, eloquent, deftly colored score precisely but almost reticently (except for sea-storms), so as to define but not overwhelm the action. The six short well-known orchestral interludes provided lyrical breathing-places and a sense of the sea. The pub and street scenes were enacted in front of or along a rising path around the orchestra. The opening coroner's inquest took place on stairs to the left. In Act III, a facade of Peter's hut appeared at the peak of the circling ramp, to define action taking place there. Behind the ramp were projections of Mr. Larson's changing gray images—a fishing boat, ceiling beams, silhouettes of Borough buildings; but mainly the slowly moving sea and mottled sky. Halfway up, this arc of moving images was split by a jagged terrace for the chorus, parts of which performed (along with horns) from behind the downstairs audience. We were all in this together.