The Met Streams Peter Grimes

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be viewed at www.metopera.org. It is available for 23 hours.

Thursday, May 14

Britten’s Peter Grimes ~ 2Hrs. 48 Mins.

Starring Patricia Racette, Anthony Dean Griffey, and Anthony Michaels-Moore, conducted by Sir Donald Runnicles. From March 15, 2008.

Anthony Dean Griffey creates a haunting portrait of the outcast village fisherman who cannot deal with the burden of suspicion and presumed guilt laid on him by his fellow villagers. This moving production by Tony Award-winning director John Doyle also features Patricia Racette as the sympathetic Ellen Orford, and the Met’s amazing chorus as the oppressively judgmental villagers.

Peter Grimes was composed between 1942 and 1945 by Benjamin Britten, and has a libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the narrative poem, “Peter Grimes,” which appeared in a book titled The Borough, by 18th century poet, George Crabbe. The “borough” of the book and the opera is a fictional village which shares similarities to Crabbe’s, and later to Britten’s, own home of Aldeburgh, a town in Suffolk on England’s east coast. Much like Wozzeck, this is a definitely depressing work – however, Britten and his partner, the British tenor Peter Pears, worked together on a modified scenario for the opera, transforming Crabbe’s brutal fisherman into a fundamentally sympathetic ‘outsider’, persecuted by a hostile community.

The opera begins with a Prologue. Peter Grimes is being questioned during a coroner’s inquest concerning the death of his apprentice (apparently from thirst) during a fierce storm at sea. The coroner, Swallow, rules that the boy died accidentally despite the objections of the hostile villagers who crowd the town hall. Although he is freed, Swallow tells Grimes not to take another apprentice – a judgment Grimes vigorously protests. After the inquest, the village schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, tries to comfort Grimes while he rages against the villager’s unwillingness to give him a reasonable second chance. She promises to try to help him.

In Act I we see more examples of how the villagers snub Grimes and drive him deeper into despair and even madness. His only friend is a retired merchant captain, Balstrode, who advises him to leave town. Grimes insists he cannot because he must first make enough money from a good catch to marry Ellen and buy a home. The apothecary, Keene announces he has found an apprentice for Grimes in the workhouse and Ellen agrees to go to fetch him. When another terrible storm breaks, putting everyone gathered in the tavern on edge, Ellen returns, drenched, with the new apprentice, John, and saying nothing, Grimes immediately leaves with the boy despite the storm.

In Act II, some weeks later, Ellen talks with John, the young apprentice, before church. She is worried when she sees bruises on his neck. When she confronts Grimes about the bruises, he brusquely claims that it was just an accident. Growing more agitated by Ellen’s obviously mounting concern – and what he interprets as her interference – he strikes her and runs off with the boy. Some of the villagers have witnessed the event, tell others about it and it is decided that they will go and confront Grimes – despite Ellen’s protests. Meanwhile, Grimes has ordered John to prepare to go out in the boat, and when he hears the angry mob approaching, he rushes Jon out the back door, warning him to be careful climbing down the cliff to the boat. Horribly, his warning is to no avail and the boy falls from the slippery cliff to his death. By the time the mob reaches his hut Grimes is gone, and finding nothing out of order there, they disperse.

As in the previous acts, another lovely musical interlude sets the mood for the final act. A couple of days have passed, and a dance is going on. Grimes has apparently disappeared, but after a jersey belonging to John is found washed up on the shore, some villagers again try to convince the authorities that Grimes is a murderer. When they hear Grimes has been spotted back in town, they raise another mob to go after him.

In the moving dénouement, Grimes appears alone on stage, aimlessly raving. John’s death has seemingly shattered his sanity. Ellen and Balstrode find him, and she tries to comfort him and bring him home, but the old captain instead encourages Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it, leading Ellen away.

As dawn breaks the next day, the villagers return to their chores. Swallow tells them the coastguard has reported a ship sinking off the coast, but no one even cares to listen to him.

Picture Credits

1.             Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

2.             Logan William Erickson (far left) as the boy, Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role and Patricia Racette as Ellen Orford in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

3.             Patricia Racette and Anthony Dean Griffey in Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.

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