In the minds of many opera lovers, Peter Grimes is held to be Benjamin Britten’s greatest opera. It follows, if the point be granted, that it is among the greatest English-language operas in the whole repertoire (of which there are precious few), and one of the finest of twentieth-century operas. I myself do not grant the original premise — in my mind, it is Billy Budd that takes the palm — but I do agree that Peter Grimes is a work of rare power and depth, with a swirling stew of dramatic themes and a characterful and muscular score.
The story is based on a poem by George Crabbe, but the characterization and dramatic thrust were considerably altered in the course of translation to the operatic stage. Grimes is a fisherman plying his trade, with the help of a young assistant, off the coast of Aldeburgh. Several of Grimes’ assistants have perished on the job in recent years, and he lives under a cloud of suspicion in the small community. In Crabbe’s original version of the story, Grimes is guilty of killing the boys, but Britten’s version is more ambiguous: Grimes is clearly unstable, and sometimes cruel, but his assistants seem to have died in — to use a phrase that appears numerous times in the libretto — “accidental circumstances”. Grimes is nonetheless an outcast, with only one person in the town, Ellen Orford, reaching out to him in friendship. The opera therefore gives Britten an opportunity to explore many themes: social stigma, madness, poverty, justice, friendship, and so on.
Let’s begin at the beginning: the opening scene is one of the most memorable in the work. We join a courtroom inquiry into the death of Grimes’ apprentice, and Grimes himself is just taking the stand. His testimony given and other evidence presented, the boy’s death is ruled accidental, but the townspeople are unconvinced. As the courtroom empties, only Ellen stays behind with Peter, and together they sing what is sometimes called (and what I believe Britten himself called) “the love duet”, though it is an odd love duet indeed. Here is the full scene (about 9 minutes), and embedded below is the “love duet” portion. I like the way it is almost entirely a capella. Note also that Peter and Ellen begin singing in different keys, but gradually converge not only to a common key, but actually to singing together. Pay special attention to the leaping interval (a ninth) when they sing together, “Your voice, out of the pain, is like a hand that I can feel.”; this interval recurs throughout the work at key moments.
For the remaining “great moments” I’ll skip to the final act. Grimes’ latest apprentice, a boy named John, has slipped from atop a wet cliff and fallen to his death, and Ellen, upon finding his sweater washed up on shore, sings a heart-breaking, and very beautiful, song which begins: “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury”. This is certainly among the loveliest moments in the opera; it is sung here by Patricia Racette.
Meanwhile, Grimes has been declining by degrees. A mob of townsfolk, upon learning of the boy’s death, are searching for him, intending harm. For a few minutes he holds the stage to deliver a “mad scene”. Mad scenes have an illustrious history in opera, though they are usually vehicles of dazzling virtuosity for sopranos. Not here: Grimes is breaking down, and the music goes with him. Again, this is largely unaccompanied singing, which has an eerie quality in an opera house.
There exists video of this part being sung by Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote the role, and so I feel a sort of obligation to link to it: done! Personally I prefer the singing of the great Jon Vickers in this role:
Ellen and an old sailor named Balstrode discover Peter. Ellen attempts to draw him in, but Balstrode instructs him to sail his boat out to sea and sink it. Much had been made of this scene, both musically (for it is the one time in the opera when dialogue is spoken rather than sung, as though to illustrate the low estate to which matters have come) and dramatically (for, if Peter is innocent of harming the boys, why should he accept an unjust death?). It is certainly chillingly effective. Here is Jon Vickers again, in a performance led by Sir Colin Davis; no video per se, but someone has taken the trouble to splice in the sections of the libretto that correspond to the music as it plays:
The clip above will actually carry us through right to the end of the opera. On the morning after Peter sails someone remarks that the coast guard reports a boat sinking off-shore, but too far out for a rescue effort, news which another character dismisses as “one of those rumours”. It brings to an end an immensely sad but humane and thought-provoking masterpiece.