Major Operas | Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten | Modern Era

Composed in 1944–45 and first performed on 7 June 1945, Peter Grimes reopened London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre following the Second World War – at the request of managing director, soprano Joan Cross. This opera, and its success, provided the momentum that the post-war arts environment needed.

From the moment Britten read ‘The Borough’ he began making plans to compose an opera, although unlike Crabbe’s negative and villainous protagonist, Britten’s title character is a partly misunderstood idealist and visionary. The brilliance of this realization is in the portrayal of ‘The Borough’ as a single entity, depicting the terror inflicted as people join in lock step with one another. Punctuating the prevarications of these small lives are the majestic sea interludes.

The hopelessness of Peter’s plight is emphasized when we acquaint ourselves with Ellen Orford, whose civilizing presence is ultimately not enough to prevent his psyche from plunging into even deeper despair. Peter’s aria ‘The Great Bear and the Pleiades’ affords us a rare glimpse into the soul of this unlikely hero.

Composed: 1944–45
Premiered: 1945, London
Libretto by Montagu Slater, after George Crabbe’s poem ‘The Borough’


An inquest is being held in the Moot Hall at Aldeburgh around 1830. Peter Grimes, a fisherman, describes how his apprentice died at sea in a storm. Swallow, the mayor and coroner, tells him that if he must have an apprentice he should get a woman to look after him. Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, promises to help Grimes clear his name.

Act I

Townspeople are gathered at the fish market. Only Balstrode, a retired merchant skipper, and Ned Keene, the apothecary, will help Grimes with his boat. Keene has bought a new apprentice for Grimes at the workhouse and Ellen agrees to fetch him with Hobson, the carter. The townspeople disapprove. Balstrode warns of an approaching storm. He suggests that Grimes should move away, to which Grimes replies that he belongs there. He intends to make enough money to become respectable, marry Ellen and open a shop.

Outside the Boar Inn, a storm rages. There has been a landslide on the cliff next to Grimes’s hut. Grimes enters, drenched and wild-eyed. The customers react to him as though he is mad or drunk. Keene breaks in when Bob Boles, a preacher, squares up to Grimes. Ellen arrives with the boy. A bridge had collapsed and they had almost had to swim for it. Without waiting for the boy to get dry, Grimes drags him away.

Act II

A church service begins while Ellen sits knitting in the sun with John, the new apprentice. As Mrs Sedley, the local gossip, watches, Ellen finds a tear in John’s coat and a bruise on his neck, observing ‘Well… it’s begun’. Grimes has spotted a shoal that no one else has seen. He comes to take John away, even though Ellen protests that he needs his day of rest She asks about the bruise. He strikes her and leaves with John. Keene, Boles and Auntie, the landlady...

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