Britten’s Peter Grimes

“At the dress rehearsal I thought the whole thing would be a disaster,” recalled Benjamin Britten, referring to the world premiere of Peter Grimes. When the final curtain fell on June 7, 1945, at the old Sadler’s Wells theater in London, silence followed by shouting filled the hall. The stage crew didn’t know what to make of the reaction, according to Joan Cross, the original Ellen Orford: “They thought it was a demonstration. Well, it was, but fortunately it was of the right kind.”

No one could have expected that Britten’s new work would single-handedly restore prestige to English opera. By the time of the Met’s first performance of Peter Grimes in 1948, the buzz was enormous. Time magazine even chose the youthful-looking composer for its cover, posing him against a backdrop of fishing nets. The accompanying feature article declared that “no opera since the days of Puccini has had so much advance praise.” Peter Grimes has continued to live up to that praise. Firmly established as part of the international repertory, it holds a singular place among operas created since World War II.

It’s just as unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the convoluted path that led from an obscure literary character to operatic protagonist. Peter Grimes first appeared as one among a large cast of townsfolk in George Crabbe’s long epistolary poem from 1810, “The Borough.” Crabbe (who was also, incidentally, an acclaimed naturalist specializing in the study of beetles) depicts Grimes as a creepy, sadistic misanthrope, “untouched by pity, unstung by remorse and uncorrected by shame.” He is a tormenter rather than tormented, strikingly different from the central figure of Britten’s opera.

An article by E.M. Forster prompted the composer’s discovery of Crabbe’s poem in 1941, at which point Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, were living in America. Britten experienced a double epiphany, on both artistic and personal levels. He not only perceived the operatic potential of “The Borough” but was moved by the richly detailed local color of the poem, set on his native East Anglian seacoast—so much so that he determined to reconnect with his roots. As soon as it became possible, he ended his self-imposed exile and returned to war-ravaged England, which the composer and Pears had fled in part because of their pacifism.

Britten homed in on Peter Grimes as the prospective opera’s central character (he appears in just one section of Crabbe’s poem). What attracted him was the potent dynamic of “the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation,” the composer wrote. Here he alluded explicitly to the scorn he and Pears faced as conscientious objectors upon returning to England—but also, implicitly, to their outsider status as a couple. “This led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe,” Britten explained.

Britten and Pears drafted a scenario that dramatically transformed the ruthless bully depicted by the poet. Christopher Isherwood was their first choice as librettist; when he declined, they turned to the left-wing writer Montagu Slater, with whom Britten had previously collaborated in the thirties, writing incidental music for two of his plays. Slater brought his own preoccupations to the libretto, although the composer ended up vetoing a number of his choices (as well as some he himself had originally suggested). Working with these various layers embodied in the final libretto, Britten then added a further dimension with his music.

As a result, the hapless fisherman is fleshed out into one of the great operatic paradoxes: an outsider characterized both by his uniqueness and by his archetypal amplitude, capable—like the Byronic hero he in some ways resembles—of mirroring contradictory identities. Britten’s Grimes contains aspects encompassing the prophetic visionary, the misunderstood artist, the egotist, the driven capitalist who will “fish the sea dry,” the eternal child, and the troubled transgressor.

But all of these traits exist within the context of the Borough—and it is the interplay between Grimes and his setting that is at the heart of the opera. The Austrian-British musicologist Hans Keller comments that Grimes “cannot show, let alone prove, his tenderness as easily as his wrath—except through the music which, alas, the people on the stage don’t hear. Thus, he is destined to seem worse than he is and not to be as good as he feels.” For example, when Grimes testifies during the inquest in the prologue, the musical texture directs our sympathies toward him with held chords—“like the halo of string sound” in a Bach Passion, as the music critic Michael Kennedy observes.

At the same time, Peter Grimes is hardly a simple parable of oppressors and oppressed. One aspect that makes the opera so involving is how ingeniously Britten’s music differentiates the townspeople—from quirky, Dickensian strokes, for example, for Swallow and Mrs. Sedley to the full portrait of Ellen Orford. She shares something of Grimes’s outsider stigma, after all, and is the central figure who tries to mediate between him and the Borough. Her duet with the fisherman subtly illustrates their tragically illusory connection: Grimes sings in a key separated by a half-step but briefly, at the end, gravitates into her harmonic field. Later, at the climactic moment when Grimes strikes out at Ellen, he erupts in a motif (“And God have mercy upon me!”) that, with resounding irony, is taken up by the villagers in their menacingly mocking chant “Grimes is at his exercise!”

Britten creates an impressive but economical network of tonal symbolism that tracks Grimes’s relationships not only with the Borough but also with the natural elements he tries to master—and into which he eventually dissolves. The six interludes offer a symphonic parallel to the collective of the townspeople, where the sea provides its own chorus-like commentary. In the second interlude, for example, Britten modulates between outer and inner landscape: the thrashing storm music also mimics Grimes’s turmoil, and it incorporates the yearning intervals of the vision he has just expressed in “What harbor shelters peace.”

A measure of the opera’s depth is that it has been able so convincingly to accommodate widely divergent interpretations. The Met’s new production by Tony Award–winning director John Doyle adds yet another perspective. While the original interpreter, Peter Pears, emphasized the title character’s fundamental humanity—portraying him as a sensitive misfit—Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (who first sang the role at the Met in 1967) ratcheted up his contradictions, declaring he used “one kind of voice for the inner Grimes, and another for the outer Grimes.” Writer Andrew Porter enthused over how Vickers, with “one of the few voices that can set the enormous Met ringing,” was able to shape a performance in which “his voice, his features, his demeanor are distorted, transfigured.”

Whatever we decide is the cause of Grimes’s conflicted nature, the opera’s tragic inevitability exerts a pull that seems both timeless and distinctly contemporary. In part this is because, as Peter Pears once remarked, “There are plenty of Grimeses around still, I think!”—a notion the Met’s new Grimes, Anthony Dean Griffey, has echoed. It is the genius of Britten’s music to make us feel what is at stake, what has been lost, and how the pattern threatens to be repeated as the Borough resumes “the cold beginning of another day.” We return to Peter Grimes, as Porter justly claims, because “its freshness, its dramatic force, its richness of musical structure, and its illuminations of private and public behavior seem ever to grow.”


—Thomas May