Opera Scotland

Peter Grimes

Music
Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text
Montagu Slater.

Source
Poem The Borough (1810) by George Crabbe (1754-1832).

Premieres
First performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 7 June 1945.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Empire Theatre), 28 April 1950.
Scottish Opera premiere: Edinburgh (King’s Theatre), 19 August 1968.

Background
It is difficult to understand the impact this opera had at its introduction in 1945. Britten was far from having the status of national treasure that he acquired later on. His stay in America during much of the war, his position as a conscientious objector, and his homosexuality, all combined to create a widespread opposition to the performance of a new and difficult opera. However its success seems to have been instantaneous, and certainly Britten was able to carry out many projects which would have been impossible otherwise. The composition is quite brilliant, and the writing for both chorus and orchestra unprecedented in its power and depiction of the elements.

Main Characters
Hobson, the carrier (bass)
Swallow, a lawyer (bass)
Peter Grimes, a fisherman (tenor)
Mrs (Nabob) Sedley, a rentier widow of an East India Company’s factor (contralto)
Ellen Orford, a widow, schoolmistress of the Borough (soprano)
Captain Balstrode, retired merchant skipper (baritone)
Bob Boles, fisherman and Methodist (tenor)
Auntie, landlady of ‘The Boar’ (mezzo-soprano)
Ned Keene, apothecary and quack (baritone)
Rev. Horace Adams, the rector (tenor)

Plot Summary
The setting is a Suffolk coastal town (clearly based on Aldeburgh) in the early 19th century. The first scene shows a coroner’s hearing in progress into the death of William Spode, a fisherman’s apprentice who had died at sea when the boat owned by his employer, Peter Grimes, had been becalmed. Grimes is shown to be a loner, out of sympathy with most of the townspeople, and they, in turn, are shown to be lacking in understanding and quick to condemn. The exceptions to this are Ellen Orford, a widowed schoolteacher, and a retired sea captain, Balstrode, who see his point of view but have little influence. As a storm rages outside, the townsfolk assemble in the inn, where Grimes awaits the arrival of a new apprentice – an orphan from the workhouse. The tragedy develops as the townspeople gradually suspect that the new apprentice is being cruelly mistreated by Grimes – even Ellen begins to have doubts when she discovers bruises on the boy. He dies in an accidental cliff-fall. Grimes is now clearly unbalanced, and Balstrode and Mrs Orford agree that the only solution is for him to kill himself – he therefore sails out to sea and scuttles his boat. The life of the town returns to normal.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1958

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Peter Pears (Grimes), Claire Watson (Ellen), James Pease (Balstrode).

The success of this version paved the way for the sequence of records which followed – Britten is almost unique in having left a near complete sequence of recordings of his operatic works. Pears is on excellent form. Claire Watson, an American who spent her career in Munich, was controversial casting at the time, but she gives a lovely performance. The cast also includes classic performances by Owen Brannigan (Swallow), Geraint Evans (Ned Keene), and many others.

PHILIPS (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1978

Conductor: Colin Davis
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jon Vickers (Grimes), Heather Harper (Ellen), Jonathan Summers (Balstrode).

Jon Vickers was one of a group of tenors who took up the role of Grimes and interpreted it in a manner very different from Peter Pears. His rendering may not have the beauties of the creator’s voice, but he acts the part in a way that Pears could never approach. This set preserves the simple but wonderfully dramatic staging by Elijah Moshinsky which was taken on the tour to La Scala in 1976. Colin Davis extracts some fierce playing from the orchestra, and the cast includes memorable performances from the likes of Thomas Allen (Ned Keene), Elizabeth Bainbridge (Auntie) and Patricia Payne (Mrs Sedley). Jonathan Summers may seem young for Balstrode, but he was a last minute replacement for Norman Bailey, who was ill.

EMI (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1992

Conductor: Bernard Haitink
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Grimes), Felicity Lott (Ellen), Thomas Allen (Balstrode).

This excellent recording also contains classic performances by singers such as Simon Keenlyside (Ned), Sarah Walker (Mrs Sedley), Stafford Dean (Swallow) and Patricia Payne (this time as Auntie). Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s first stage performance as Grimes was with Scottish Opera in 1994, and he immediately showed a strong affinity with the part – more brutal than Pears, but more lyrical than Vickers.

EMI (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 2008

Conductor: Donald Runnicles Director: John Doyle Designers: Scott Pask & Ann Hould-Ward
Orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, New York
Anthony Dean Griffey (Grimes), Patricia Racette (Ellen), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Balstrode).

This staging has a strangely Scottish sub-text, with the collaboration of Donald Runnicles (from Edinburgh) and John Doyle (from Inverness), meeting in New York. Both do us proud, seizing the wonderful work by the throat and making the New York chorus act like hard-bitten East Anglian fiisherfolk. The staging is straightforward and very effective, with a cast of singing actors who project character and words clearly. These include Jill Grove (Auntie), Felicity Palmer (Mrs Sedley), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Ned Keene).

The Cast

Auntie
 landlady of 'The Boar'
Bob Boles
 fisherman and Methodist
Captain Balstrode
 a retired sea officer
Dr Crabbe
 
Ellen Orford
 widow and schoolmistress
First 'Niece'
 
Hobson
 carrier, constable of The Borough
John
 the new apprentice
Mrs 'Nabob' Sedley
 widow of an East India Company factor
Ned Keene
 apothecary and quack
Peter Grimes
 a fisherman
Rev Horace Adams
 the Rector
Second 'Niece'
 
Swallow
 lawyer, Mayor of The Borough

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