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Peter Grimes

Related subjects: Poetry & Opera

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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 Aldeburgh, on England's east coast, around 1830.

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.


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


In 1941, shortly after the premier 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. He later said: "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 of 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 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 Sergei Koussevitzky. 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.



Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death of his apprentice. The townsfolk, all present, make it clear 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.

Act 1

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.

Act 2

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 accuses the ever silent John of "telling stories" and then becomes lost in his memories of the dead apprentice, reliving the boy's death of thirst. When he hears the mob of villagers approaching, he quickly comes back to reality and gets ready to set out to sea: he tells John to be careful climbing down 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

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 recognizes 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."


Year Cast:
Peter Grimes,
Ellen Orford,
Balstrode, Auntie
Opera House and Orchestra
1948 Peter Pears,
Joan Cross,
Reginald Goodall,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and BBC Theatre Chorus
Audio 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
Audio CD: Decca
Cat: 414577(reissued 1990, 2001, 2006)
1978 Jon Vickers,
Heather Harper,
Jonathan Summers,
Elizabeth Bainbridge
Colin Davis,
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Orchestra and Chorus
Audio 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 Video: 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
Audio 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 Video: Kultur
Cat: 2902
1995 Philip Langridge,
Janice Watson,
Alan Opie,
Ameral Gunson
Richard Hickox,
City of London Sinfonia and London Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Audio CD: Chandos
Cat: 9447
2004 Glenn Winslade,
Janice Watson,
Anthony Michaels-Moore,
Jill Grove
Colin Davis,
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Audio CD: LSO Live
Cat: 54
2005 Christopher Ventris,
Emily Magee,
Alfred Muff,
Liliana Nikiteanu
Franz Welser-Möst,
Orchester und Chor der Oper Zürich
DVD Video: EMI Classics
Cat: 00971
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