I have been looking forward to hearing Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the San Francisco Symphony’s performance of Peer Gynt, which he did (well, kinda—sorta) last night. I say “kinda—sorta” because the performance was not at all what I was expecting: the performance of Grieg‘s two four-movement symphonic suites. Instead, this was a production, a play, a bit of an extravaganza!
I enjoy attending the lecture series held one hour prior to performance, but last night I was 15 minutes late due to an unexpected traffic delay. When I arrived, talk under way, I was even more disappointed that I missed the start.
I knew Grieg wrote Peer Gynt in 1875 in a tiny cottage not too far from Bergen (in Solstrand, actually). I’ve been to the spot and seen the tiny little cottage, and I do mean tiny—barely large enough for the piano and a very small table. The views from the cottage, however, are of a gorgeous snow capped Norwegian fjord.
What I didn’t know was that Edvard had been hired to write the music for a play by Henrik Ibsen, a self-exiled Norwegian playwright, with a rather somber, even dark world view, who had collected numerous old tales of a real Norwegian named Peer Gynt. Ibsen wanted his play to have wider success and thus commissioned Grieg. He apparently was not overly pleased with the more up-beat tone of Grieg’s score but appreciated the fact that his music catapulted the play to significant success the next year. Grieg only published the symphonic suite. Grieg’s complete score to the play was not published until after his death.
Little did I know that at least 2 other composers have also scored the play Peer Gynt. Leave it to the San Francisco Symphony’s bold and brilliant artistic director to decide to take music from all 3 composers (Grieg, Alfred Schnittke, and Robin Holloway) and stage a production of the play, Peer Gynt, as a musical fantasy.
The play’s dialogue was in English. The acting was exceptional—live theater with the San Francisco Symphony, how could it not be! From the haunting opening tones of the timpani to the reprise of that theme at the very dramatic ending, I was utterly spellbound! At times the orchestra lead the development of the plot while at others it elevated the emotive tone of the play. During the world premier of Holloway’s work (who was in attendance), the orchestra actually dramatically assumed the role of the storyteller along with the spectacular video projection work (onto a sculpted scrim above the orchestra, visible in the top photo) of Adam Larsen.
There were moments of transcendence. When the character Solveig, played by Joélle Harvey, unexpectedly began to sing, I was flabbergasted. She was such an accomplished actress I had no idea she is a gifted soprano with the voice of an angel that can float the softest, lightest, most effortless high tones with ethereal beauty!
The death of Peer’s mother, actress Rose Portillo, at the end of the first half was an exceptional, delicate and sensitive theatrical moment. The audience was riveted, completely captured. The actress’ rich and dusky voice added a compelling depth to this intense scene.
The final scene, Peer’s accounting for his lack of identity and the failed measure of his life, was also spectacular. The hymnody of the chorus set a stark contrast to Peer’s reckless and ill-spent life setting the psychological space for painful reckoning. At the very end, Peer was lulled to sleep by the beloved Solveig, now aged and infirmed, as the button maker (our concept of the grim reaper) made a final haunting appearance as the timpani theme quietly brought the production to a breathtaking close.
While some of the local critics panned the Thursday night performance (I attended Friday night.) as not “peerless” (Isn’t that just pithy?!), I personally found it to be: