Peter Grimes

Benjamin Britten

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Opera in three acts with a prologue
Libretto: Montagu Slater after George Crabbe
World premiere: 7 June 1945, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
Premiere of this production: 23 June 2023, Polish National Opera, Teatr Wielki, Warsaw
In the original English with Polish surtitles

The fact that Benjamin Britten’s operas, which had until recently been rarely staged in Poland, are more and more often shown in this country can  largely be credited to Mariusz Treliński who has a very high opinion of Britten’s music. It has been his intention for some time to put on Peter Grimes and as the artistic director of the Polish National Opera he had had a hand in the company’s staging of Curlew River and Billy Budd (together with the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo).

Let is use our imagination and travel to Aldeburgh, a small fishing village in Suffolk on the east coast of England. The area was where composer Benjamin Britten was born and spent most of his life. He cherished the rocky coastline washed by crashing waves of the North Sea, the harbour at the mouth of the Alde river, and the town clinging to the church walls. Having spent a few years in America, where he fled in fear of war (he was a declared pacifist) and lived off writing film music, Britten decided to return to England together with his partner tenor Peter Pears, leaving behind in New York a less patriotically inclined friend poet W.H. Auden. Britten and Pears settled in Aldeburgh, which became their private Arcadia and a place where they founded an intimate festival in 1948 that is regularly held until this day.

Aldeburgh was also where poet George Crabbe lived and worked at the turn of the 18th and 19th century and whose poem The Borough captivated young Britten. Its protagonist, a violent recluse by the name of Peter Grimes who has been ostracised by the fishing community of Aldeburgh. The subject seized Britten’s imagination and in 1945 he completed his first opera titled Peter Grimes, entering the world of stage music with a bang. Instantly after its London opening, in which Peter Pears sang the title role, Grimes was classed as a masterpiece for its refreshing, both eclectic and very individual musical language. England was to become an operatic powerhouse yet again – having discovered his vocation, Britten was writing one opera after another, including The Rape of Lucretia, the wonderful Billy Budd, the comedic Albert Herring, Death in Venice after Thomas Mann, Gloriana, The Turn of the Screw, the television opera Owen Wingrave, and a chamber masterpiece for children Let’s Make An Opera.

Peter Grimes is a work of incredible dramatic power, soaked in sea salt and north winds. It is a tale of a man who lives off fishing, raw, reticent, and eager to make money, yet at odds with the local community who accuses him of brutality towards his young apprentice and blames him for the death of one of them. The few friends who stand up for him are Ellen Orford, a widow whom Grimes wants to marry, Balstrode, a retired sea captain, and apothecary Keene. But even they cannot defend Grimes when it turns out that the fisherman contributed to the death of another minor apprentice who had died in an accident. This time Grimes must accept the blame – he sets out to sea on his own.

The story has a great deal in common with an ancient tragedy which, alongside with the wonderful music, gives the piece a timeless quality. It tells of a protagonist that is conflicted with social morals and conventions, cruel fate that he cannot escape, a punishment for his hubris. Grimes’s mysterious inability to fit in with his surroundings is played up and romanticised. Andrzej Tuchowski, Britten’s Polish biographer, wrote that Crabbe’a Grimes has psychopathic features, while Britten makes him a Byronic character. Although not a decadent romantic poet, he is a doomed man who will never find happiness in this world.



Chorus and Orchestra of the Polish National Opera


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