Peter Grimes

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Peter Grimes is an opera by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the narrative poem, "Peter Grimes," in George Crabbe's book 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.

Composition history[edit]

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.[1]

Britten returned to England in April 1942. Soon after his return, he asked Montagu Slater to be his librettist for Peter Grimes.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Pears was certainly the intended Peter Grimes,[5] 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",[6] and one of "the true operatic masterpieces of the 20th century,"[5] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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.

Performance history[edit]

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.[9] Yet when Peter Grimes opened in June 1945 the opera was hailed by public and critics;[10] its box-office takings matched or exceeded those for La bohème and Madame Butterfly, which were being staged concurrently by the company.[11]

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.[5]

In the summer of 2013, the Aldeburgh Festival staged a performance of Peter Grimes in its natural setting on the beach at Aldeburgh[12] with tenor Alan Oke in the title role.[13]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast, 7 June 1945
(Conductor: Reginald Goodall)
Peter Grimes, a fisherman tenor Peter Pears
Ellen Orford, a widow, Borough schoolmistress soprano Joan Cross
Auntie, landlady of The Boar contralto Edith Coates
Niece 1 soprano Blanche Turner
Niece 2 soprano Minnia Bower
Balstrode, retired merchant skipper baritone Roderick Jones
Mrs. (Nabob) Sedley, a rentier widow mezzo-soprano Valetta Iacopi
Swallow, a lawyer bass Owen Brannigan
Ned Keene, apothecary and quack baritone Edmund Donlevy
Bob Boles, fisherman and Methodist tenor Morgan Jones
Rev. Horace Adams, the rector tenor Tom Culbert
Hobson, the carrier bass Frank Vaughan
John, Grimes' apprentice silent role Leonard Thompson

Synopsis[edit]

Prologue[edit]

Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death at sea 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 - a proposal against which Grimes vigorously protests. As the court is cleared, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress whom Grimes wishes to marry as soon as he gains the Borough's respect, attempts to comfort Grimes as he rages against what he sees as the community's unwillingness to give him a true second chance.

Act 1[edit]

After the first orchestral Interlude (in the Four Sea Interludes concert version entitled "Dawn"), the chorus, who constitute "the Borough", sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Grimes calls for help to haul his boat ashore, but is shunned by most of the community. Belatedly, Balstrode and the apothecary, Ned Keene, assist Grimes by turning the capstan. Keene tells Grimes that he has found him a new apprentice (named John) from the workhouse. Nobody will volunteer to fetch the boy, until Ellen offers ("Let her among you without fault...").

As a storm approaches, most of the community - after securing windows and equipment - take shelter in the pub. Grimes stays out, and alone with Balstrode confesses his ambitions: to make his fortune with a "good catch", buy a good home and marry Ellen Orford. Balstrode suggests "without your booty [Ellen] will have you now", only to provoke Grimes's furious "No, not for pity!" Balstrode abandons Grimes to the storm, as the latter ruminates "What harbour shelters peace?" The storm then breaks with a vengeance (second orchestral Interlude).

In the pub, tensions are rising due both to the storm and to the fiery Methodist fisherman, Bob Boles, getting increasingly drunk and lecherous after the pub's main attraction, the two "nieces". Grimes suddenly enters ("Now the Great Bear and Pleiades..."), and his wild appearance unites almost the entire community in their fear and mistrust of his "temper". Ned Keene saves the situation by starting a round ("Old Joe has gone fishing"). Just as the round reaches a climax, Ellen arrives with the apprentice, both drenched. Grimes immediately sets off with the apprentice to his hut, despite the terrible storm.

Act 2[edit]

On Sunday morning (the third orchestral Interlude), 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 develop 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.

Act 3[edit]

Night time in the Borough ("Moonlight" in the Sea Interludes). 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 sparsely accompanied by cries from the off-stage chorus, and a fog horn (represented by a solo tuba): John's death has seemingly shattered Grimes's sanity. 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 coastguard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed by Auntie as "one of these rumours."

Recordings[edit]

Year Cast:
Peter Grimes,
Ellen Orford,
Balstrode, Auntie
Conductor,
Opera House and Orchestra
Label[14]
1948 Peter Pears,
Joan Cross
Reginald Goodall,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and BBC Theatre Chorus
CD: EMI Classics 64727
Cat: (excerpts)
1958 Peter Pears,
Claire Watson,
James Pease,
Jean Watson
Benjamin Britten,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus,
Recorded Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
London CD: Decca
Cat: 414577 (reissued 1990, 2001, 2006)
1969 Peter Pears,
Heather Harper,
Bryan Drake,
Michael Rippon
Benjamin Britten,
London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus,
Recorded Snape Maltings.
BBC Recording DVD: Decca
Cat: 074 3261
1978 Jon Vickers,
Heather Harper,
Jonathan Summers,
Elizabeth Bainbridge
Colin Davis,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
CD: Philips
Cat: 462847 (reissued 1999)
1981 Jon Vickers,
Heather Harper,
Norman Bailey,
Elizabeth Bainbridge
Colin Davis,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
DVD: Kultur
Cat: 2255 (released 2003)
1992 Anthony Rolfe Johnson,
Felicity Lott,
Thomas Allen,
Patricia Payne
Bernard Haitink,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 5483222 (reissued 2003, EMI Classics: 915620)
1994 Philip Langridge,
Janice Cairns,
Alan Opie,
Ann Howard
David Atherton,
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
DVD: Kultur
Cat: 2902
1995 Philip Langridge,
Janice Watson,
Alan Opie,
Ameral Gunson
Richard Hickox,
City of London Sinfonia and London Symphony Orchestra Chorus
CD: Chandos
Cat: 9447
2004 Glenn Winslade,
Janice Watson,
Anthony Michaels-Moore,
Jill Grove
Colin Davis,
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
CD: LSO Live
Cat: 54 [15]
2005 Christopher Ventris,
Emily Magee,
Alfred Muff,
Liliana Nikiteanu
Franz Welser-Möst,
Orchester und Chor der Oper Zürich
DVD: EMI Classics
Cat: 00971
2012 John Graham-Hall,
Susan Gritton,
Christopher Purves,
Felicity Palmer
Robin Ticciati,
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala
DVD: Opus Arte
Cat: OA1103D[16]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Matthews (2003), Ch. 4, "America Is What You Choose to Make It"
  2. ^ Matthews (2003), Ch. 5, "What Harbour Shelters Peace?"
  3. ^ Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "The lesson of Peter Grimes", The Guardian (London), 6 August 2000
  4. ^ Stephen Johnson, "Peter Grimes", The Guardian (London), 3 March 2001. Review of the opera in Birmingham
  5. ^ a b c Anthony Tommasini, "The Outsider in Their Midst: Britten’s Tale of the Haunted Misfit", The New York Times, 1 March 2008.
  6. ^ Philip Brett and Elizabeth Wood, , "Lesbian and Gay Music", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, editors. London: Macmillan, 2001.
  7. ^ "Opera's New Face", Time, 16 February 1948]
  8. ^ James Fenton, "How Grimes became grim", The Guardian, 3 July 2004
  9. ^ Gilbert (2009), p. 98
  10. ^ See, for example, "Sadler's Wells Opera – Peter Grimes", The Times (London), 8 June 1945, p. 6, and Glock, William. "Music", The Observer, 10 June 1945, p. 2
  11. ^ Banks (2000), pp. xvi–xviii.
  12. ^ "Coming Up: Grimes on the Beach II" Aldeburgh web site. Retrieved 20 July 2013
  13. ^ Jessica Duchen, "Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, live on the Aldeburgh beach", The Independent (London), 14 June 2013. Retrieved 20 July 2013
  14. ^ Recordings of the opera on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk Retrieved 7 November 2010
  15. ^ Andrew Clements, "Britten: Peter Grimes: Winslade/ Watson/ Michaels-Moore/ Wyn-Rogers/ Grove/ Rutherford/ Lemalu/ London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/ Davis". The Guardian (London), 9 July 2004
  16. ^ "Recordings of Peter Grimes, Presto Classical

Cited sources

Other sources

  • Allen, Stephen Arthur, "He Descended into Hell: Peter Grimes, Ellen Orford and Salvation Denied", The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten,, (Ed. Mervyn Cooke). Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 81–94
  • Whittall, Arnold, "Peter Grimes" in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Three, pp. 978 – 981. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. 1998 ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5

External links[edit]