60-second guide: Britten's Peter Grimes

Our quick introduction to the British composer's opera


In June 2013, Aldeburgh staged a one-off production of Britten's Peter Grimes on the beach, set against the North Sea backdrop that the opera portrays. Tenor Alan Oke took the title role, with soprano Giselle Allen singing the part of Ellen Orford and baritone David Kempster taking the part of Balstrode. It's out now on Signum Classics, and is our November Recording of the Month.

Opera Peter Grimes

Composer Benjamin Britten

Premiere 1945, Sadler's Wells, London

So, who was Peter Grimes? He's the unlucky anti-hero of Britten's most famous opera. A misanthropic fisherman who lives in the small coastal Suffolk town of 'The Borough', he loses first one of his apprentices at sea in mysterious circumstances and then another. He's hounded by the townspeople who want to bring him to justice.

Innocent or guilty? That's one you have to decide for yourself as Britten leaves it ambiguous. Grimes protests his innocence, claiming he's been the victim of bad luck. The townsfolk don't trust him, seeing his 'outsider' status as a threat to their community.

Is that one of the bigger themes then? Yes, the idea of the individual (Grimes) versus society (the townsfolk) underpins the piece. Britten himself said that the opera was about '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'.

An outsider living by the sea? That sounds a bit like Britten himself. The British composer grew up by the sea and lived most of his life in coastal Aldeburgh. 'I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea,' he said. Some have also seen the opera as a comment on the repression of homosexuality in British society during that era.

What gave Britten the idea to write Peter Grimes? The seeds of this opera were planted in 1941 in America, when Britten read a copy of George Crabbe's works. He finished Peter Grimes in 1945, back in England. It is based on Crabbe's poem The Borough.

What are the musical highlights? The Four Sea Interludes – 'Dawn', 'Sunday Morning', 'Moonlight' and 'Storm' – orchestral movements linking  Acts are often heard in the concert hall as a stand-alone piece. Peter Grimes's 'Mad Scene' – his final solo in the opera – is a haunting number, accompanied only by the eery sound of a foghorn (a tuba) and a chorus baying his name. Also listen out for the chorus's round 'Old Joe has gone fishing'.

It all sounds rather bleak… Grimes must be one of the most unsettling and powerful operas of the 20th century. But as expert Britten conductor Steuart Bedford points out, there are some good people: 'Aunty's lovely, as is Ellen Orford, who Grimes hoped to marry in better circumstances. And there's a wonderful apothecary, rather like Private Walker in Dad's Army.'

Recommended Recording Alan Oke, Giselle Allen, David Kempster et al; Chorus of Opera North; Chorus of Guildhall School of Music and Drama; Britten-Pears Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
Signum Classics SIGCD 348

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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