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.
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. 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.
|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|
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.
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.
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.
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."
Opera House and Orchestra
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and BBC Theatre Chorus
|CD: EMI Classics 64727
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus,
Recorded Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
|London CD: Decca
Cat: 414577 (reissued 1990, 2001, 2006)
London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Opera Chorus,
Recorded Snape Maltings.
|BBC Recording DVD: Decca
Cat: 074 3261
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Cat: 462847 (reissued 1999)
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Cat: 2255 (released 2003)
|1992||Anthony Rolfe Johnson,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
|CD: EMI Classics
Cat: 5483222 (reissued 2003, EMI Classics: 915620)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
City of London Sinfonia and London Symphony Orchestra Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
|CD: LSO Live
Cat: 54 
Orchester und Chor der Oper Zürich
|DVD: EMI Classics
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala
|DVD: Opus Arte
- Matthews (2003), Ch. 4, "America Is What You Choose to Make It"
- Matthews (2003), Ch. 5, "What Harbour Shelters Peace?"
- Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "The lesson of Peter Grimes", The Guardian (London), 6 August 2000
- Stephen Johnson, "Peter Grimes", The Guardian (London), 3 March 2001. Review of the opera in Birmingham
- Anthony Tommasini, "The Outsider in Their Midst: Britten’s Tale of the Haunted Misfit", The New York Times, 1 March 2008.
- 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.
- "Opera's New Face", Time, 16 February 1948]
- James Fenton, "How Grimes became grim", The Guardian, 3 July 2004
- Gilbert (2009), p. 98
- 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
- Banks (2000), pp. xvi–xviii.
- "Coming Up: Grimes on the Beach II" Aldeburgh web site. Retrieved 20 July 2013
- Jessica Duchen, "Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, live on the Aldeburgh beach", The Independent (London), 14 June 2013. Retrieved 20 July 2013
- Recordings of the opera on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk Retrieved 7 November 2010
- 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
- "Recordings of Peter Grimes, Presto Classical
- Banks, Paul (2000). The Making of Peter Grimes: Essays and Studies. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-791-2.
- Gilbert, Susie (2009). Opera for Everybody. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-22493-7.
- Matthews, David (2003). Britten. (Life & Times). London: Haus Publishing Limited. ISBN 1-904341-21-7.
- 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
- Further Peter Grimes discography
- Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes (BBC synopsis)
- Hensher, Philip. 2009. "A Man for the People. The Guardian (8 May).