SAN FRANCISCO -- This season, the classical music world has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of composer Benjamin Britten's birth. With the San Francisco Symphony's semi-staged production of his opera "Peter Grimes," the celebration reaches a zenith, powerfully confronting us with the hard beauty of this masterpiece -- "terrible and deep," like the ocean that informs the story.
As Grimes, the abused and abusive fisherman, tenor Stuart Skelton gives a memorable performance, showing the dissolution of this tangled character. No one who witnesses it is likely to forget his final aria, which gives us Grimes at wit's end, exhausted and hallucinating. As Skelton's feathered voice goes rough and craggy and finally is strangled with anger, we are privy to the fisherman's madness.
The production, which opened Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall and runs through Sunday, blazes with strong performances, beginning with that by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra.
Theirs was a steadily evocative rendering of an endlessly evocative score, whose opening theme moved like a magic breeze through the orchestra's ranks. The score lavishes attention on the chorus (directed here by Ragnar Bohlin), which delivered Britten's tender, earthy and scabrous numbers with polish and conviction. The 100-plus voices became the massed whisperings of the town gossips and later delivered the savage shouts of the town mob -- "Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!" -- asking for his neck.
Britten's music is equally psychological and physical.
It infuses each character with a specific essence. And it summons a palpable sense of place; the score is itchy with the claustrophobic tension that defines Grimes's hometown, a fishing village, known as the Borough, on the east coast of England around 1830. Britten gives us the gales that buffet it and the sea that churns beneath its cliffs. When Skelton sang of "the flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring," the image instantly fixed in the imagination.
While Grimes is harsh with the boys who assist him with his hazardous work -- two die in the process -- he isn't guilty of killing them. The townspeople believe otherwise, and stage director James Darrah mostly keeps the drama high as the figurative noose keeps tightening around Grimes. The cast circles the orchestra -- there are risers behind it -- and the action eventually moves offstage and into the aisles of the hall; it's as if the audience becomes part of the Borough, a place of suspicion and injustice.
The landscape is digitally projected onto curving, sail-like scrims behind the orchestra. We see silhouettes of the village and of the cliffs along the coast, of naked trees like spindles surrounded by snow, of Grimes's fishing hut -- and in the end, images of the rolling sea. All is in black and white, with video design by Adam Larsen and scenic and lighting design by Cameron Jaye Mock.
The effect is bleak; not surprising, as Britten composed his work during the war years. (It premiered in London in 1945.) The opera is more than just grim; it gives us dreamers, lovers and boozers. But all are trapped.
The excellent cast notably includes soprano Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress and Grimes's girl. She believes in him, but with limits, and van den Heever embraces the messy gray areas of the relationship. She sang with luxurious tone, handling Britten's long arching lines with the good woman's patience and ease.
Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray was warm-voiced, a charmer as Auntie, landlady of the Boar, the village's public house. As Captain Balstrode, the retired skipper who appeals to Grimes's conscience throughout, baritone Alan Opie sang with rock-hard assurance. Tenor Richard Cox sang with pulsating zeal as Bob Boles, a fisherman and Methodist believer (with a bent for alcohol).
Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu threw his fresh and appealing voice -- large and open -- into the role of Ned Keene, the apothecary. As Hobson, the carrier, bass Kevin Langan displayed an earthy breadth of tone. Bass-baritone John Relyea, as the lawyer Mr. Swallow, sang with grandeur, and then with appropriate liquored-up wooziness. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby was top-notch as meddlesome Mrs. Sedley, the widow, laudanum addict and gossip, who, as much as anyone, brings down Grimes.
Presenting "Peter Grimes," by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Montagu Slater, based on a poem ("The Borough") by George Crabbe
When: 8 p.m. June 27, 2 p.m. June 29
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Tickets: $50-$85; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Also: At 8 p.m. June 28, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra perform the "Four Sea Interludes" from "Peter Grimes," with video by Tal Rosner; same ticket prices as above