Almost anyone with the temerity to mount a new version of "Peer Gynt"—Henrik Ibsen's (or Edvard Grieg's, or Ibsen's-plus-Grieg's) immense, all-over-the-map epic drama with music—has to make major changes from the original 1876 production. For one thing, Ibsen's text ran to about 40,000 spoken words. Complete live productions and films run to five or 5½ hours. There are 38 scenes, in five acts, most of them set in rural Norway; but the last two acts include scenes in Morocco, Egypt and at sea, as the ever-wandering Peer makes his way around the world.
The non-Norwegian sojourns were all cut (wisely) from the recent San Francisco Symphony Orchestra version, and replaced by a first performance of Robin Holloway's ingeniously orchestrated, 20-minute "Ocean Voyage," written between 1984 and 1997 for his own version of "Peer Gynt." Ibsen asked for 40 identified characters, as well as trolls, imps, elves, witches, hobgoblins, wedding guests, dancing girls, lunatics and their keepers, a ship's crew and a funeral party. The annual Peer Gynt Festival in Norway, which does mount a full, uncut 1876 version, enlists 100 student performers to fill up the ranks, in addition to professional musicians, singers and actors. But this would be a stretch for unsubsidized, non-Norwegian troupes. The full, recently discovered musical score—which takes about 90 minutes, but often underlines the dialogue—was first played in San Francisco in 1988.
Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the SFSO, has had great fun (and success) in recent years mingling actors, dancers, singers and musicians in new, not-quite-grand-opera productions of works by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, John Cage and the Yiddish theater of Mr. Tilson Thomas's grandparents. For "Peer Gynt," he selected 15 of Grieg's 26 original musical numbers—only five from the easy-listening, almost-too-popular "Peer Gynt" suites Grieg extracted from the original in 1888 and 1891. In addition to inserting Mr. Holloway's welcome orchestral interlude—which (together with skillful projections) did convey something of Peer's global misadventures, as well as spare us some of Ibsen's and Grieg's less-successful scenes—he added three grating, scary orchestral episodes from Alfred Schnittke's music for "Peer Gynt" written between 1985 and 1987. These—particularly Schnittke's dissonant chords evoking the horrible Bøyg (an invisible, irresistible monster Peer confronts)—helped remind listeners that Ibsen's play is, at times, a much more serious, cruel and even nightmarish work than Grieg's suave and romantic 19th-century score could ever convey.
A cloudlike scrim that fell over part of the raised chorus terrace was well (if not magically) used by director James Darrah and video designer Adam Larsen for images of actors' faces, Peer's abduction of Ingrid, the windblown Norwegian woods, the flames of hell, ships' swaying rigging, and the sea in various moods. The acting space itself, in front of the orchestra, was challengingly narrow, with plants in front and a jagged wall to the left for entries and exits.
Ben Huber played a good, but not good enough Peer—many great actors have undertaken this difficult role. Bumptious, boasting and egocentric, he didn't age 40 years between part one and part two, or persuade us of all the exotic, dubious things he had supposedly done during those years. Joélle Harvey, as his ever-faithful Solveig, got to sing four sweet, simple songs, which she did with perfect purity and charm. Two other powerful, well-chosen actors were Rose Portillo, as Peer's long-suffering mother—Peer's drive with her to death was superb—and Peabody Southwell, as the Troll-King's bosomy daughter, who seduces Peer into making love to her energetically onstage, to very sexy music. (When she later warns him, "You will be a father next year," we have reason to believe her.) Ragnar Bohlin's symphony chorus played its minor but important roles perfectly.
The scenes that don't work are the author's fault. The one in the Troll-King's hall (famous for its musical bits) and the whole business of turning Peer into a troll are hard to fathom. But without these scenes, and those from his exotic travels—in the original he was a gold miner and slave-trader in America, a fake prophet in Morocco, and presumed to be a madman in Cairo—it's hard to grasp what the ending episodes with the Button-Molder/Devil are all about. Having read "Peer Gynt," and having seen it presented with no more than minimal music, I wish someone could have talked Ibsen into radically reducing and editing the text.
But then no "straight" play has ever had such orchestral and choral enrichment. Somehow, rolled together with Grieg's rich, sympathetic score—like both Schnittke and Mr. Holloway, he was a master of orchestral coloration—"Peer Gynt" begins to make a kind of irrational, dreamlike sense. The famous suites take Grieg's music completely out of its context, and turn his responses to a mad, manic play into subscription-series bonbons.
There can be no "definitive" performance of the Ibsen/Grieg "Peer Gynt." But Mr. Tilson Thomas and his collaborators were wise to make the cuts and additions they did, which yielded another vital and viable "Peer Gynt" for our generation. They also showed, as in any popular symphony concert, that they could play with equal finesse a program dominated by good if unchallenging late-19th-century romanticism, along with a substantial piece of varying, onflowing modernism, and occasional jolts of a new kind of music.
Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared January 23, 2013, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: 'Peer' Pressure.