Name: Peter Grimes
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Librettist: Montagu Slater
First performed: Sadler’s Wells, London, 7 June 1945
In one sentence: much-maligned fisherman Peter Grimes is driven to madness and suicide by his tragic circumstances and the distrust of his fellow villagers.
Famous characters: the most well-known character is the eponymous fisherman. The role was almost certainly written for Britten’s partner, the English tenor Peter Pears, who performed the part at the opera’s premiere as well as in several further productions. The role of Ellen Orford was probably intended for another singer closely associated with Britten’s operas, English soprano Joan Cross, who also performed the role in the premiere.
Music you might recognise: the Four Sea Interludes (‘Dawn’, ‘Storm’, ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Passacaglia’) are among the most famous pieces. These are often performed in concert, particularly the fourth.
The opera is set in a fictional village called the Borough, which is loosely based on Britten’s home town of Aldeburgh, a Suffolk seaside town. It is based on the narrative poem ‘Peter Grimes’, in George Crabbe’s book The Borough. Crabbe was also a native of Aldeburgh.
It opens at an inquest into the death of Peter Grimes’s apprentice William. The fisherman has been accused of murdering the boy. The townsfolk believe Grimes to be guilty, but the coroner records the death as accidental. Grimes rages against the villagers’ refusal to give him a second chance and is comforted by schoolmistress Ellen Orford, whom Grimes wishes to marry.
Grimes is shunned by the community, but he takes on another apprentice, John. However, Ellen notices bruises on the boy’s neck and confronts Grimes. He hits her, witnessed by two villagers who relate the incident to the others. A mob forms and makes its way to Grimes’s hut. He hears them coming and takes John out the back. The boy slips and falls to his death. Grimes disappears.
Grimes is driven mad by his experiences and is convinced to take his boat out into the sea and sink it. Following Grimes’s suicide, the Borough returns to normal life.
David Alden’s production of Britten’s Peter Grimes at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in January 2013 (Hubertus1977, via Wikimedia Commons).