2013 is coming to an end and we are going to remember the BEST of this year: Britten Centenary!
Celebrating Britten’s 100 years!
Peter Grimes is an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the Peter Grimes section of George Crabbe’s poem The Borough. The “borough” of the opera is a fictional village which shares some similarities with Crabbe’s, and later Britten’s, own home of Aldeburgh, a town on England’s east coast.
It was first performed at Sadler’s Wells in London on 7 June 1945, conducted by Reginald Goodall, and was the first of Britten’s operas to be a critical and popular success.
It is still widely performed, both in the UK and internationally, and is considered part of the standard repertoire. In addition, the Four Sea Interludes were published separately (as Op. 33a) and are frequently performed as an orchestral suite. The Passacaglia was also published separately (as Op. 33b), and is also often performed, either together with the Sea Interludes or by itself.
A Little bit of history:
In 1941, shortly after the first performance of his opera Paul Bunyan, Britten and his partner Peter Pears went to stay at Escondido, California. There they read the poem by Crabbe and were struck by it. Britten, being a native of Suffolk, strongly identified with the tragic story of the Aldeburgh fisherman Peter Grimes.
This opera was first conceived while Britten was in California. Happening to read E. M. Forster’s article on the 18th-century Suffolk poet George Crabbe in the BBC’s magazine The Listener, he was straight away filled with nostalgic feelings about Suffolk. Pears found a copy of Crabbe’s works in a second-hand bookshop and Britten read the poem The Borough, which contained the tragic story of the Aldeburgh fisherman Peter Grimes. He said later: in a flash I realised two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.
Britten returned to England in April 1942. Soon after his return, he asked Montagu Slater to be his librettist for Peter Grimes. Britten and Pears both had a strong hand in drafting the story, and in this process the character of Grimes became far more complex. Rather than being the clear-cut villain he is in Crabbe’s version, he became a victim of both cruel fate and society, while retaining darker aspects in his character.
It is left to the audience to decide which version is more true, and to see how clear-cut or ambiguous the various characters are.
Pears was certainly the intended Peter Grimes, and it is likely that Britten wrote the role of Ellen Orford for Joan Cross. The work has been called “a powerful allegory of homosexual oppression”, and one of “the true operatic masterpieces of the 20th century,” but the composer’s own contemporary (1948) summation of the work was simpler:
a subject very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.
Though as the writing of the libretto progressed, certain versions showed Grimes’ relations with his apprentice to be bordering on paederastic, Pears persuaded Slater to cut the questionable stanzas from the final version.
Many scholars, instead of viewing this as a celebration of Grimes’ abuse, look at it as Britten’s condemnation of the homophobia of his era, and what he understood to be the destructive sociological consequences of it.
The opera was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundations and is “dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky”, wife of the Russian-born American conductor Serge Koussevitzky.
When Joan Cross, who was then manager of the Sadler’s Wells company, announced her intention to re-open Sadler’s Wells theatre with Peter Grimes with herself and Peter Pears in the leading roles, there were many complaints from company members about supposed favouritism and the “cacophony” of Britten’s score.
Yet when Peter Grimes opened in June 1945 the opera was hailed by public and critics; its box-office takings matched or exceeded those for La bohème and Madame Butterfly, which were being staged concurrently by the company.
Its American premiere was given in 1946 at Tanglewood by Koussevitzky’s pupil, Leonard Bernstein.
In 1967, the Metropolitan Opera mounted a “landmark” production directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Jon Vickers in the role of Grimes.
In the summer of 2013, the Aldeburgh Festival staged a performance of Peter Grimes in its natural setting on the beach at Aldeburgh with tenor Alan Oke in the title role.
Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death of his apprentice. The townsfolk, all present, make it clear that they think Grimes is guilty and deserving of punishment. Although the coroner, Mr Swallow, determines the boy’s death to be accidental and clears Grimes without a proper trial, he advises Grimes not to get another apprentice. As the court is cleared, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, attempts to comfort Grimes as he rages against what he sees as the Borough community’s unwillingness to give him a true second chance.
The chorus, who constitute “the Borough”, sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Grimes claims to be in desperate need of help to fish, and his friend, the apothecary Ned Keene, finds him a new apprentice (named John) from the workhouse. Nobody will volunteer to fetch the boy, until Ellen (whom Grimes wishes to marry) offers.
When Ellen brings the apprentice to Grimes at the pub that evening, Grimes immediately sets off to his hut, despite the fact that the Borough is weathering a terrible storm.
On Sunday morning, while most of the Borough is at church, Ellen talks with John, the apprentice. She is horrified when she finds a bruise on his neck. When she confronts Grimes about it, he brusquely claims that it was an accident. Growing agitated at her mounting concern and interference, he strikes her and runs off with the boy. This does not go unseen: first Keene, Auntie, and Bob Boles, then the chorus generally evolve into a mob to investigate Grimes’s hut. As the men march off, Ellen, Auntie, and the nieces sing sadly of the relationship of women with men.
At the hut, Grimes impatiently drives the ever silent John into changing out of his Sunday clothes and into fisherman’s gear, and then becomes lost in his memories of his previous, now dead apprentice, reliving the boy’s death of thirst. When he hears the mob of villagers approaching, he quickly comes back to reality, stirred both by a paranoid belief that John has been “gossiping” with Ellen, so provoking the “odd procession”, and at the same time feeling defiant. He gets ready to set out to sea, and he tells John to be careful climbing down the cliff to his boat, but to no avail: the boy falls to his death. When the mob reaches the hut Grimes is gone, and they find nothing out of order, so they disperse.
Night time in the Borough. While a dance is going on, Mrs. Sedley tries to convince the authorities that Grimes is a murderer, but to no avail. Ellen and Captain Balstrode confide in each other: Grimes has returned after many days at sea, and Balstrode has discovered a jersey washed ashore: a jersey that Ellen recognises as one she had knitted for John. Mrs. Sedley overhears this, and with the knowledge that Grimes has returned, she is able to instigate another mob. Singing “Him who despises us we’ll destroy”, the villagers go off in search of Grimes.
While the chorus can be heard searching for him, Grimes appears onstage, singing a long monologue: John’s death has seemingly pushed Grimes, already dangerously unstable, over the edge. Ellen and Balstrode find him, and the old captain encourages Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it. Grimes leaves. The next morning, the Borough begins its day anew, as if nothing has happened. There is a report from the coast guard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed by Auntie as “one of these rumours.”