Monday, 27 June 2011
Peter Grimes and the Suffolk Coast
I was (to my surprise) very moved and touched by this opera. I say "to my surprise" because I usually find it hard to get emotionally involved in opera plots (and I don't like opera any the less for that; in fact I love this fancy dress world,. I just don't expect to be dwelling on the problems of the characters for days afterwards. But maybe that's just me. )
Perhaps "Peter Grimes" appealed to me so much because Suffolk is one of my favourite counties. Parts of it still have a slight air of being cut off from the modern world, and Britten's music very much evoked an insular, claustrophobic remoteness which was much more pronounced even in my own memory of the place.
The work is loosely based on an early 1800s poem by George Crabbe, but Britten's Grimes is a complex character, entirely different from Crabbe's out-and-out villain. In the opera, Grimes is a fisherman who is hated by everyone in his closely- knit coastal village because his boy apprentice died during a fishing trip. It's not Peter's fault, and the court acquits him of murder, but still, everyone in the village thinks he did it, and so they shun him. He has only two friends, who want to help him turn his life around.
But Peter can't be helped. He sincerely yearns for happiness, and for everything to be good, but he can see no way to win the respect of the villagers except by continuing to be his rough, aggressive, hard working self. He wants to make himself rich by fishing more successfully than anyone else, and then, he thinks, they'll respect him. He'll also be able to ask his woman friend, Ellen, to marry him, and she'll help him to make a happy home.
He's advised not to get another boy apprentice, but Ellen is sure she can help him look after another boy in a kind way. So, in the teeth of the villagers' opposition, she helps Grimes to find another boy apprentice. But Grimes works the boy hard, and is rough and violent with him because that's the only way he knows to get all the work done that he needs to do. He tries to be kind, but does not know how to express his feelings and conflicts.
Ellen is horrified when she finds a bruise on the boy. So are the villagers. A group of them decide to punish Grimes, and so he and the boy try to flee down a cliff. The boy slips - and dies. It's another accidental death. But who will ever believe that?
Now, nobody can help Grimes. His one remaining male friend advises him to sail his boat out to sea and sink it, and Grimes despairingly departs.
The next scene in the opera opens with a new day. The villagers talk about the sinking boat, but nobody wants to go and rescue it. They simply let Grimes go without even rejoicing at his loss. He did not fit in with them, and they hated him, and there is no more to be said. It is a chilling finale.
There are various theories about why Britten related to this story, but one thing is sure, that the music (and the excellent libretto) absolutely recall the sound and presence of the sea, which,with its terrible storms and roughness, almost seems like one of the characters in the opera.
And the sea remains a constant presence on the Suffolk coast. It eats away at the land, just like it did in Peter Grimes. I'm posting a picture here of the sea attacking the coast near Minsmere. You can't see the wind, of course - except that it was blowing the grass almost horizontally. And that was on a nice day!
And this is Britten's storm seascape from "Peter Grimes" conducted by Leonard Bernstein. These sea interludes are played between the acts of the opera.