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British composer Benjamin Britten described his opera Peter Grimes as “the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” Set in a drab fishing village, Peter Grimes tells the story of a man accused by his neighbors of committing unspeakable crimes, and how their actions ripple further and further. Britten’s incredible score includes the Four Sea Interludes, instrumental music between scenes that perfectly express the mystery and pain at the heart of this opera. Starring John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves and Felicity Palmer. From Teatro alla Scala, Milan.
The scene is laid entirely in a nondescript fishing small town (called “The Borough”) on the inhospitable east coast of England.
At the Moot Hall an inquest is held into the death at sea, under suspicious circumstances, of an apprentice to the fisherman Peter Grimes. Conducted by the lawyer Swallow, one of the village notables, it concludes with a verdict of acquittal for Grimes on the grounds of insufficient evidence. He is given a warning to behave better in future.
Peter realizes that he cannot work without an apprentice, in part because he is anxious to earn a better living in order to re-establish his name in the town. Moreover, he wants to marry the widow Ellen Orford. A new apprentice is procured for him by the chemist, Ned Keene. The kind widow Ellen Orford, who is the Borough schoolmistress, offers to accompany the boy to the village from the orphanage of a town not far away. They travel with the carrier Hobson. Unfortunately their journey is made at nightfall, and the spring storms have caused landslides along the coast and roads. The travelers are awaited by the whole community, who have barricaded themselves in “The Boar” pub, run by Auntie, where she exhibits her “Nieces.” Ellen Orford, Hobson and the apprentice at last arrive, exhausted and shivering with cold. But Peter, heedless of the storm, roughly pushes the boy out and takes him straight to his solitary hut.
A fine summer Sunday morning. The scene is set outside the Borough church. Ellen Orford is knitting, and trying to comfort the boy, for she has noticed that he unfortunately already bears the marks of ill-treatment received from the impetuous Peter Grimes. At this point the fisherman strides in and abruptly drags the boy away to go fishing, even though it is Sunday which is supposed to be his day off. The whole scene is distinguished by the solemn sonority of the religious service being sung off-stage, in the church with its doors wide open. The service is attended by all the other inhabitants of the Borough. When the congregation comes out onto the square, the notables decide to send a deputation to Grimes’ hut to ascertain the boy’s living conditions. When they get there they find the hut surprisingly tidy, but empty. Just before their arrival in fact, Grimes forces the lad through the back door onto the cliff-top, to go out fishing for what he feels sure is going to be a very big catch. Afterwards, they attempt to make their way back to the Borough.
A few evenings later. From the Moot Hall come the sounds of a dance, attended by the whole community. On the stage, men are going from the Hall to the pub, chasing after the Nieces. Mrs. Sedley, who has been talking to Ned Keene, voices her suspicions about the fate of Grimes and his apprentice, who have been missing for some days. Captain Balstrode and Ellen Orford come across the sweater which she had knitted for the boy lying wet on the beach. Amid general apprehension, an expedition is dispatched to search for the man and the boy. Later, in a thick fog, Peter appears, worn out and deranged. Ellen tries in vain to console him. But Balstrode convinces him to take his boat out to sea, where he cannot be seen from the shore, and to sink it. At dawn, with its habitual routine and noises, a new day breaks for the Borough. News comes from the coastguard tower that a boat has been sighted sinking on the horizon. No one can see it from the land and nobody takes any notice as they go about their daily business. The scene closes with a chorus that sings of the incessant ebb and flow of the tide.
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