Peter Grimes, Opera by B. Britten
When life imitates art and vice versa, beautiful harrowing moments usually emerge. This is definitely the case with Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, a dramatic opera set in the gloomy fictional fishermen’s village called simply the Borough. Originally debuted on 7 June 1945 at Sadler’s Wells in London, it was Britten’s first operatic success. Its fame continues to this day, and Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice stages a faithful revival that puts the work’s contagious atmosphere and haunting themes of oppression, doubt, and guilt on full display. The literal and metaphorical crimes and trials at the heart of Peter Grimes speak to universal conflicts and human flaws that make the performance all the more exciting.
Britten found his inspiration in the narrative poem ‘Peter Grimes’ by George Crabbe. It was prominent part of the poet’s collection of tales from the Borough, a made-up coastal town in eastern England, quite similar to the real-life fishermen’s village of Aldeburgh, with which both Crabbe and Britten were familiar. The adaptation of the poem into a libretto was entrusted to Montagu Slater who captured the source text’s unique atmosphere and the raw realism of small-town life on the coast. Britten added to this an expressive score with powerful interludes, forceful choruses, and emotional arias and duets.
Peter Grimes is a fisherman with good intentions and bad luck. The opera’s opening scene finds him under suspicion he has murdered his apprentice at sea, and not even the coroner’s certainty the death was accident can convince the local people Peter is innocent. Despite their accusatory stance, the fisherman reaffirms his intentions to take up a new apprentice, make an enormous catch, earn money and respect, and finally propose to his love interest, the kind Ellen. However, the Borough’s folk keep on piling doubt and animosity on Peter Grimes whose sanity and self-control soon start giving out. Fuelled by Benjamin Britten’s own painful experiences of societal doubt and exclusion, the opera races towards a striking, tragic climax that audiences at La Fenice will appreciate.