Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at English National Opera

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

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Have you read George Crabbe? Britten and Slater made a lot of changes to the original that you might find interesting, given what you have written above. Plus The Borough is a good book.

    Reply

    • Yes, I know the Crabbe poem, and read it again before going to see the opera. It is indeed interesting that Britten and Slater make no reference to Grimes early life: he is just presented, effectively, without a past. But of course, Crabbe gives us no explanation either: he is brutal merely because he is.

      Interesting also that while Crabbe had Grimes haunted by the ghosts of the dead apprentices, Britten & Slater eschew that completely. So, in the opera, it is not clear that Grimes’ frenzy at the end is caused by guilt – although, of course, it could have been.

      I have always found it fascinating comparing operas to their source material, to figure out how and in what way the composer and librettist have adapted the material to their own ends. A comparison between the poem and the opera would indeed be fascinating, but I don’t know that either has sunk in sufficiently deeply into my mind for me to say anything meaningful on the matter!

      Reply

  2. Posted by John Henrick on February 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

    Himadri, was Britten a fourth “B”? I ‘d say so, or perhaps a fifth, allowing space for Borodin, Berg, Bartok, etc. Britten’s oeuvres were by no means limited to opera, but his best compositions arguably include such contrasting gems as The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring. Admittedly, Britten was blessed with gifted librettists, but so were almost all the other great opera composers, with the possible exception of Wagner

    Reply

    • Hello John, good to see you here.

      I am acquainted with Britten’s works, and there are some I have come to like: I have become particularly fond of the string quartets, for instance. But I have long felt that to get to know a work well, one has to live with it: it is not enough just to experience it once or twice. There are some authors, some composers, whose works I have indeed lived with; but with Britten, I have really done no more than dip my toes in.

      As for the 4th B – some may say Berlioz, of course. not me – I have never really understood his works. Bartok I love: I remember a mad day some 5 or 6 years ago when the Belcea Quartet played all six of Bartok’s quartets in the Wigmore Hall spread across a single day. That was a bit special. And I certainly won’t argue with you about Berg: I heard Wozzeck once in a concert performance (conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi, with Franz Halwata and Deborah Polaski in the principal roles) – and I think I emerged from that concert a nervous wreck.

      By the way – I love that throwaway line of yours in your last sentence! But what is your vote for the best libretto? there are many contenders, but I think I’d cast my own vote for Arrigo Boito’s wonderful libretto for Falstaff.

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by John Henrick on March 4, 2014 at 6:05 am

        Best librettist? Having scanned the “partial list” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_opera_librettists I shall focus on those selected by Benjamin Britten and postpone a more comprehensive answer indefinitely. Ben seemed to favor Myfawny Piper, who supplied four, among which that for The Turn of the Screw wins my vote as best, although she also did the one for Owen Wingrave, also based on a Henry James ghostly tale. That said, E. M. Forster worked on the libretto of Billy Budd, and W. H. Auden supplied the libretto for Britten’s operetta Paul Bunyan.

      • I don’t know the operas of Britten as well as I should, but I must admit that the libretto of “Billy Budd” seems to me a bit wordy. The one for “The Turn of the Screw”, on the other hand, is superb.

        I heard a story that while “Billy Budd” was in rehearsal, Tippett popped in, and on hearing Vere say “Clear the deck of seamen!” burst into laughter. Britten was reportedly furious, and the double entendre does not appear in the finished version. I don’t know how true this story is, but it’s one of those stories that should be true!

  3. I used to think it was possible to play Peter Grimes as a good man who is the victim of circumstances. I’m not sure I think that any more. There’s just too much evidence of his thuggery in the libretto to allow for that interpretation, for all that there’s no reason necessarily to believe that the death of either apprentice is due to murder rather than negligence. Brute though he is, there are certainly gradations of brutality, with the likes of Pears and Langridge at the soft end, and Vickers at the other extreme. Skelton’s somewhere in the middle. I’ve never taken to Vickers, but I think Skelton’s just about as good a Grimes as there’s been since Pears. (My preference is probably for Langridge; Alan Oke, who sang Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach, is also superb.)

    There really aren’t that many amiable characters in Grimes, are there. Perhaps that was a calculated decision, to show Grimes himself in a better light by comparison. Ellen is good-natured but weak, and most of the rest (Mrs Sedley, Keene, Boles, the Rector, Swallow) are hypocrites of various colours. Balstrode is a decent sort, thoughtful and wise and eminently rational, but there is the problem of Act 1 Scene 2 where he enters the pub swearing and treats Mrs Sedley and the Nieces coarsely. That was a late addition to the libretto, I think, necessitated by a plot hole somewhere, and it sticks out as an inconsistency of character, given how reticent he is in the other scenes. Auntie’s different, I think, amiable because of being a recognisable type — even more recognisable in this production because she appears to be straight out of an Otto Dix painting — a publican trying to earn a living, provide a service and keep the peace. And there is that beautiful, meditative quartet for Auntie, Ellen and the Nieces, that makes them automatically sympathetic in the way that the other people of the Borough aren’t. Perhaps a set piece like that is where opera scores over other media. You couldn’t do it in a play.

    While I don’t think this production’s choice to show Grimes weeping and cradling the boy during the viola lament at the end of Act 2 is a huge misstep, I’m not sure there is any great justification for doing it. In the filmed Tim Albery production (the previous ENO version, with Langridge as Grimes), the equivalent place simply shows Grimes bearing away the lifeless body of the apprentice. I think that’s a more sensitive and open-ended depiction of what might have happened, if you feel you have to show it at all. I don’t know whether that is how it was on stage, or if it was an addition of the filmed version.

    I saw this production in its first incarnation, but remembered almost nothing of its gimmicks. Stylish though the staging is, I don’t know what purpose the updating serves. The costumes of Auntie, the Nieces and Keene aside, it could have passed for 1810 or whenever Crabbe was writing, the abstractness of the set notwithstanding. The flippancy of the Nieces and Keene I found particularly hard to take. Perhaps it didn’t help that I was watching it on the big screen, with all the facial contortions up close. Leigh Melrose is a fine singer and I dare say a good actor, but acting on stage requires larger gestures than on screen, and his performance seemed altogether too cartoonish. I’d rather have had an absolutely straight production, at least in terms of characterisation. Another asset of Grimes on the Beach. When you’re doing a production of the opera in Aldeburgh, in the open air, that’s all the innovation you need. You don’t need to refresh the plot by giving your Nieces dolls to tote or getting Keene to grind against Mrs Sedley. (Also, the apprentice in this production was too old by at least two or three years. He looked like he could have chucked Grimes off a cliff himself if required, and had to maintain a diffident stoop in the scene with Ellen so it didn’t look like he was towering over her…)

    But a very fine performance of a great opera. I was particularly impressed by Elza van den Heever (new to me) and Iain Paterson (one of my favourite operatic singers at the moment – he was also brilliant in the recent Glyndebourne Billy Budd, available on DVD and CD, I think perhaps Britten’s greatest achievement), as good an Ellen and Balstrode as I’ve ever seen. At different moments I found myself thinking of Strauss and Sondheim, two great men of the stage. Britten sometimes surprises me like this. But a piece like this is a bridge between the two other composers. There’s a decent bit of Salome in it, I think. I’ll have to listen to that again.

    Reply

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