The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.
— Benjamin Britten on Peter Grimes
Benjamin Britten's most famous opera, Peter Grimes
is based on the character of George Crabbe's narrative poem The Borough
The opera opens with a coroner's inquest: Peter Grimes's boy apprentice died in a serious illness during a fishing voyage. The coroner deems the child's death an accident, but admonishes the "brutal, callous and coarse" fisherman not to take another apprentice. Grimes grumbles that, despite the verdict, the poisonous hate of all people in the Borough village will forever mark him as guilty
. Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, cheers him up, confident that his name will be cleared in due course.
Without another pair of hands, Grimes struggles at his trade. The Borough's apothecary Ned Keene informs Grimes about a new apprentice available from the workhouse, but no one wants to help Grimes fetch the boy — until Ellen volunteers. The villagers are aghast, but she reasons that a boy needs someone to comfort him on his grueling journey to a strange place. The prospect of a new apprentice improves Grimes's mood, and he opens himself to his friend Captain Balstrode: people may scorn his dreams, but one day he will hit it big and marry Ellen.
Storm hits the Borough that night; the people are staying at the village tavern. Grimes barges in, with no rain-gear and soaked to the skin. He sings a mysterious aria about the circles of stars and fish and fate. Everyone is sure he is loony
. Bob Boles the Methodist calls Grimes a killer, but is promptly pacified by Captain Balstrode. Ellen comes in with the boy, both tired and wet. To everyone's horror, Grimes seizes the boy and goes straight into the storm, back to his so-called hut (an upturned boat) on the cliff.
Some weeks later, Ellen is spending a peaceful Sunday morning with the new boy, John, and was alarmed by a bruise around his neck. Grimes comes and grabs the boy, saying they are to sail at once. Ellen complains, but Grimes says the boy is now his and he calls the shots, and that the bruise was an accident. Back in Grimes's "hut", the boy is crying, while Grimes clumsily steels him on, fantasizing how they will persevere and prosper — but his vision is tainted by the specter of his old apprentice. "Sometimes I see that boy here in this hut. He is there now...
Grimes has a more tangible threat though: the village mob
has resolved to take matter in their own hands: Him who despises us, we'll destroy
. Frightened, Grimes hurried through the cliff door, urging the boy after him. The boy, not being surefooted, falls 40 feet to his death. The mob storm into Grimes's home and find no one.
Grimes disappears for days. Eventually Balstrode spots Grimes's boat on the beach, and more disturbingly, Ellen picks up John's jersey (which she knitted herself) on the running tide. They soon come upon Grimes, obviously insane, babbling about dead boys and Davy Jones
. Ellen wishes to take Grimes home, but Balstrode gives his no-nonsense advice
: sail until you lose sight of land, then sink the boat.
A new day. Coastguard reports of a sinking ship. Life goes on in the Borough as usual.
Peter Grimes contains examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion — the opera is a much fleshed-out adaptation of the original poem: instead of being a Bluebeard-like sadist who, taking advantage of lax child-labor regulations, leaves a trail of dead boys in his wake, Grimes in the opera has more human motivations.
- Angry Mob Song — "Now is gossip put on trial" and "Who holds himself apart"
- BSOD Song — Grimes's final scene.
- Convicted by Public Opinion.
- Dead Hat Shot — John's jersey.
- Driven to Suicide.
- Empathic Environment — The weather, in particular the fog and storm, are narrative devices in this work. The famous Four Sea Interludes are frequently performed as separate orchestral items.
- The Fundamentalist — Bob "Methody" Boles.
- Hysterical Woman — Miss Sedley, who needs opium to sleep.
- "I Want" Song — Grimes has two: a sunnier one when he confides to Captain Balstrode, and a more disquieting one ("In dream I've built myself some kinder home") that he sings to his new apprentice John.
- Leave Behind a Pistol — Balstrode's final words to Grimes. No actual pistol is involved, but the idea is the same.
- Loners Are Freaks.
- Miss Kitty — while we don't know about the background of the tavern landlady "Auntie", many productions treat her as a "lady with a past" who runs a less than kosher establishment.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero — the villagers are as much a cause of the second apprentice's death as Grimes.
- Reasonable Authority Figure — The retired old sea-dog Captain Balstrode, who dispenses practical advices to Grimes and casually defuses a fuming Bob Boles. It is an indication of how bad things have gone when he suggests Grimes should commit suicide.
- Sanity Slippage Song: Peter's final aria. One of the most famous "mad scenes" in opera, at least outside of bel canto.
- Tenor Boy - Subverted. And how.
- The Voiceless — Grimes's second apprentice John, except for a death scream.
- A pragmatic decision by the creators: they wrote him a voice originally, but couldn't find a boy who could sing the part. The librettist's wife told him in exasperation to "make him mute, for goodness sake!" At one stage they had Ellen referring to the tragedy of the boy's actual inability to speak, before deciding (probably for the best) to make him simply happen not to speak (though under the circumstances his behaviour suggests pathological elective muteness- not impossible, as his upbringing was probably traumatic)