Peter Grimes: a short guide
Benjamin Britten’s seafaring masterpiece Peter Grimes opened this week in the first revival of Willy Decker’s much admired production (21 June -3 July). If you need to check up on the plot twists, or be reminded of the Suffolk setting, here’s some handy opera notes to help you.
Facts and Figures:
- Opera in a prologue and three acts, sung in English
- Composer: Benjamin Britten
- Librettist: Montagu Slater, after the poem ‘The Borough’ by George Crabbe, 1810
- World premiere: 7 June 1945, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
- Current Royal Opera Production: premiere: 3 July 2004, Original director: Willy Decker, Sets and costumes: John Macfarlane
Background: Peter Grimes is inspired by George Crabbe’s 1810 series of poems ‘The Borough’ set in Britten’s native county of Suffolk, on the East coast of England. Britten and his partner, the British tenor Peter Pears, worked on the scenario for the opera together, transforming Crabbe’s essentially evil fisherman into a fundamentally sympathetic outsider in a hostile community. Britten then appointed the Communist writer Montagu Slater to write the libretto, adding many touches to the text himself. Peter Grimes was first performed in 1945, just after VE Day, with Peter Pears singing the title role.
Short synopsis: Peter Grimes is a fisherman, living in a small Suffolk town called ‘The Borough’. He is summoned to court after the mysterious death of his young apprentice, but is let off with a caution and warned not to hire another. Soon, however, he ignores the court’s ruling and orders a new apprentice from the workhouse. Then, one night, Grimes’ new apprentice falls to his death while Grimes prepares to go fishing. The townsfolk become convinced that Grimes has murdered the boy and resolve to hunt him down. Grimes, now almost mad, appears. He pours scorn on the people of The Borough, urging them to find him, and, finally, sails out to sea to sink his boat, drowning himself. [Peter Grimes synopsis in full.]
Peter Grimes: A fisherman, a solitary figure, who finds it impossible to integrate with the society about him.
Ellen Orford: A widowed schoolmistress who loves Peter.
Captain Balstrode: A retired sea captain, one of the kindliest inhabitants of The Borough.
Mrs Sedley: Lonely, gossipy and addicted to laudanum.
Ned Keene: An apothecary, who provides Mrs Sedley with her laudanum.
Auntie: Landlady of the Boar Inn. One of the more tolerant members of The Borough.
Auntie’s Nieces: Young girls who work as high-class prostitutes in The Borough.
John: Peter Grimes’s new apprentice, accidentally killed by his master.
Above, scroll through the picture gallery: Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes, Amanda Roocroft as Ellen Orford, Jonathan Summers as Captain Balstrode, Alan Oke as Bob Boles, Anna Devin as the niece, Jane Henschel as Mrs Sedley, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Auntie. Photos: Clive Barda, 2011
Watch the film:
Amanda Roocroft, on location in Aldeburgh, discusses the role of Ellen Orford.
Our Peter Grimes Education Site, set up for the original production.
Including interviews with tenor Ben Heppner and set designer John MacFarlane