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Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Opera in three acts and a prologue
Libretto by Montagu Slater based on George Crabbe's poem The Borough (1810)
First performed June 7 1945, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

Performed in English with German surtitles
ca. 3 hours, including 1 interval
an introductory talk, in German, begins in the upstairs foyer 30 minutes before every performance  

»Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!« An opera about an outcast who is not encouraged to integrate. The characters in The Borough, a poem by the English poet and country priest George Crabbe on which the libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera was based, are pretty humdrum. There is a village idiot, dishonoured girls, a resigned cleric, a beggar and corruptable, bigotted respectable citizens, who hide their crimes behind their wealth. Even an old aunt, parading her beautiful nieces, is there, and the fisherman Peter Grimes, who nobody wants to work with because he is suspected of murdering his apprentice. He is the central figure in Benjamin Birtten's opera which was first performed in 1945 and is now one of the most successful and popular operas in the world. The orchestra combines the elemental force of the sea with the tragic central character's soul. A man, cast out from the lives of the villagers, finds death in the sea.

The world is rich in scapegoats: in strangers, handicapped people, suspected witches, Jews or people who love others of their own sex. There is no shortage of hounds to join the pack, no shortage of stereotypes to persecute. »I think there are a lot of Grimes' in our midst!« said Peter Pears, Britten's life partner and first Peter Grimes.

Peter Grimes is questioned during an inquest into the death of his apprentice at sea. Despite being cleared of any wrong doing, rumours about his guilt continue to circulate among the villagers. Only the widowed teacher Ellen Orford dreams of a future with Grimes. ACT 1 Fishermen and women describe their tough life on the coast, made less intolerable by quantities of gin. An approaching storm unsettles everybody. All shun Grimes, only Captain Balstrode and the quack Keene help him pull up his boat. Keene has procured another apprentice for Grimes from the workhouse. Ellen Orford offers to collect the boy. A storm tide is approaching. Balstrode advises Grimes to start a new life elsewhere. Grimes holds on tight to his dream of winning the village round, through hard work and wealth, and then marrying Ellen. Balstrode warns him not to let »the old tragedy« repeat itself with the new apprentice. Late evening, in the pub, Grimes broods over life in metaphorical imagery. Balstrode prevents an argument that threatens to breakout with the other customers. Soaked by their journey through the storm, Ellen Orford arrives with the child. Despite other people's misgivings, Grimes leaves with the boy. INTERVAL, ACT 2 On a Sunday morning, while the other inhabitants are at church, Ellen Orford finds a bruise on the child's neck. Grimes arrives to take the lad out fishing, on his day of rest. Ellen reproaches Grimes, who pushes her aside and leaves with the boy. The men gather to call the fisherman to account. Grimes hears the villagers approaching while preparing to go and catch a huge shoal he has seen. He tells the boy to climb down the cliff to the boat. The child slips, falling to his death. Grimes disappears. ACT 3 A party is in full swing. Mrs Sedley voices her suspicions that Grimes, who has not been seen for days, has murdered his apprentice. Ellen, overheard by Mrs Sedley, shows Balstrode the boy's jersey, which she found by the tide-mark. The inhabitants of the Borough decide to punish the fisherman. Grimes hears the mob searching for him. Ellen and Balstrode appear. Balstrode tells Grimes to take his boat out and scuttle it. Early next morning the coastguards report that a boat is sinking. Nobody takes much notice.