I am acquainted with about four or five of Britten’s operas, but don’t pretend to know any of them intimately. These are works I have heard once in a while, but haven’t actually lived with: and major works of art, which I am convinced these operas are even though my acquaintance with them is no more than casual, need ideally to be lived with. But nonetheless, it is hard to come to Peter Grimes without at least some preconceptions.
It is a work I have found problematic in the past. Britten and Pears have both spoken of it as being a depiction of an outsider – which, indeed, it is: Grimes is an outsider hounded to his death by local villagers, who are presented throughout in a most unflattering of lights. However, Grimes himself I find so reprehensible a person that I can’t at times help sympathising with the villagers, despicable though they are. Surely this man, with his tendency towards violence, is not a man to be trusted with the care of a helpless apprentice boy? Surely the villagers are right in not wanting Grimes to be in charge of another apprentice, after the last one had died? The death of the last apprentice is recorded in the court as “accidental”; and it is also noted that Grimes had previously saved the boy from drowning. Nonetheless, for Grimes to chase after a shoal of fish without carrying sufficient supplies of drinking water cannot be interpreted as anything other than a case of gross negligence. The villagers are clearly driven by hatred for Grimes rather than by concern for the boy – but can it be doubted that, whatever their reasons, they are right on this particular matter?
I tried to put all these things out of my mind when going to see last Sunday the much feted production by the English National Opera. After all, we need not approve of a character morally to see him as a tragic hero: Macbeth is an obvious example in this respect. Let us grant, then, that Grimes is, indeed, deeply reprehensible. Does that inhibit our feelings of pity and terror?
On the evidence of David Alden’s production, the answer is “no”. Rarely have I seen anything on stage that packs so powerful an emotional punch. But the almost visceral impact made by the drama should not obscure some rather unsettling questions – most especially, to what extent is Grimes himself a monster? To what extent does he deserve any pity at all?
The production does its best to direct our sympathies towards Grimes: at the end of the second act, for instance, as the orchestra plays a tender requiem for the dead boy, we see Grimes weeping over his body: this is an addition to the libretto, and, while I can see why this addition was made, I couldn’t help wondering whether the drama would have been even more powerful, even more unsettling, without it. For to depict Grimes, as this production does, as an essentially decent and compassionate man beneath his rough exterior, and beneath his casual thoughtlessness, is, in a way, to make things a bit easy for the audience: it would have been far more disturbing, I think, to have challenged the audience to feel pity and compassion for a man who deserves none.
For that is how Britten, and his librettist Montagu Slater, wrote it. Whatever Britten and Pears may subsequently have said about Grimes being an outsider, or about Grimes being a visionary, the drama as presented by the libretto and by the music makes no attempt to soften the harsh outlines of the man. He is a brutal man who is violent to his apprentices; he is a man who, not once but repeatedly, shows not the slightest concern for his apprentices’ wellbeing; he is a man of whom his latest apprentice – eerily silent in all the scenes in which he appears – is clearly frightened. And as for his visionary qualities – his most heartfelt aspirations are nothing more noble or idealistic than the acquisition of wealth and social standing. Apart from the detail we hear in the prologue of having once saved his former apprentice from drowning, it is difficult to think of anything to say in Grimes’ favour.
Another question that inevitably crops us is why Grimes should be such an outsider. He is, after all, a brutal man in a brutal society: why does he not fit in? The answers that I have seen focus on autobiographical details: Britten and Pears had been conscientious objectors, and as a consequence, in the aftermath of the War, there have been, rightly or wrongly, strong feelings of disapprobation. And, of course, Britten and Pears were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. But it has always seemed to me a mistake to try to interpret any work of art on the basis of the artist’s biography: what internal evidence is there that can suggest some sort of reason for Grimes’ status as an outsider? As far as I can see, there is none. One cannot even ascribe the villagers’ hatred to Grimes’ rough treatment of his apprentices: in that society, rough treatment of apprentice boys was the norm, and fatalities amongst apprentice boys, especially in a calling as fraught with danger as fishing, were common. The villagers’ hatred is unmotivated: it is utterly irrational. It just is.
This creates something of a challenge for the audience, especially audiences who may think, as many appear to do, that one cannot become involved in a drama unless one can sympathise with one or other of the characters. For there is no-one here to sympathise with – not even Ellen Orford, who is foolish enough to hand the apprentice boy over to Grimes, thus effectively signing his death warrant. But the idea that one must sympathise with characters is, it seems to me, a red herring: whether we sympathise or not, Britten challenges us to look on in terror and pity at what humans do to each other, and to themselves. By the time we get to the feverish final act, Grimes is unhinged, and we do not sit in judgement over this tortured man, any more than we say “Serves you right you murdering bastard!” when Othello tells us that fiends will snatch at his soul.
The production brings the action forward to the 1940s – roughly the time this opera was composed. Such a decision can have pitfalls: for one thing, the depiction of inhabitants of a small coastal town in the 1940s is bound to have, for a British audience at least, unfortunate overtones of Dad’s Army. Also, the reference to the workhouse becomes anachronistic. But on the whole, the updating in time worked well enough, despite Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene, here done up as a spiv, inevitably, for me at least, evoking memories of Private Walker. But this aside, there was not the slightest hint here of the cosiness of Dad’s Army. Quite the opposite: the village provided throughout a deeply oppressive and unsettling environment against which the tragedy unfolded. The crowd scenes were superbly done: the villagers seemed collectively a protagonist in the drama, and at the same time, various individual villagers were vividly depicted as characters in their own right. Only with “Auntie” and her two “nieces” did I find myself entertaining some doubts: “Auntie” was here dressed in a very masculine pinstripe suit and a fur coat; and the “nieces”, despite exuding sexuality, were presented very disturbingly as doll-carrying schoolgirls. Further, their stylised, marionette-like movements I found extremely uncomfortable. All this is as it should be: “Auntie” and her “nieces” should make us feel uncomfortable. But, as presented here, they evoked a world of bohemian decadence that seemed a bit out of kilter with what is, after all, provincial backwater. And should they seem so out of kilter? It is Grimes, after all, and not they, who are the outsiders here.
Alden eschews strict realism – which is always an option in this opera. The sets are here semi-abstract, evoking states of mind as well as suggesting the physical settings of the courthouse, or of the seafront, or of the inn. Most effective were the steeply raked tables that represented Grimes’ hut – and also, one suspects, his state of mind. And the staging of the apprentice’s death really could not have been done better: as we hear a cry offstage, and the rope to which the apprentice is tied suddenly disappears from view, I found myself experiencing a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And Grimes’ final scene in Act Three – Grimes “mad scene” – is about as horrifying as anything I have experienced in the opera: whatever reservations I may have had about this work coming into the opera house were, by this stage, all completely forgotten. Only in Berg’s Wozzeck, I think, have I experienced anything remotely comparable.
Of course, Wozzeck is a major influence in this, Britten’s first major opera. One could have a great deal of fun spotting all the other influences – some of which are virtually spelt out by Britten himself: the inn scene during the storm is clearly modeled on a similar scene in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; the quartet with Ellen, Auntie, and the two nieces (actually a trio as the nieces sing in unison) is clearly modeled on the famous trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier; and so on. The most salient influence was that of Britten’s hero, Verdi: the very opening, where Peter Grimes’ name is called out three times in the courthouse, recalls the three calls of “Radames” in the trial scene in Aida. It requires no great insight spotting these (and other) correspondences. But what is remarkable is the way Britten makes them his own: all these references to other works serve Britten own musical and dramatic purpose, and what results is very individual, very different from the works of Verdi, or of Strauss, or of Berg, or of Gershwin, present though they all are. Britten does not “borrow” from the works of others, so much as take what they have to offer and transform them into something very much after his own fashion.
I generally try to avoid writing about the music since, not having had a musical education, I do not feel qualified to do so. So perhaps I should restrict myself merely to saying that as far as my admittedly untrained ears could judge, what I heard last Sunday was exceptional from all concerned. The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, produced some quite extraordinary sounds; and leading the fine cast was the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose singing, both musically and dramatically, was coruscating.
In short, I am convinced: the reservations I had previously entertained have all been dispelled. So much so, I now want to get to know Britten’s other operas; and, in no time at all, I’m sure I’ll become a fully paid up member of the Society of Britten-Bores. No matter. When you see something so powerful in a live performance, it becomes difficult to get it out of your system