Reflections in the Sea: Britten’s Peter Grimes

"The Old Man and the Sea" - Winslow Homer

“The Old Man and the Sea” – Winslow Homer

Countless stories have been told documenting the trials and tribulations about journeying over water. Tales of sailors, fishermen and whalers talk about the draw they feel to the sea. But this calling doesn’t always lead to a romantic ending for the voyager. The sea remains unpredictable, unforgiving, unknowing.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi are only a small sampling of the plethora of stories attributed to the fury, torment and rebirth the sea imposes on mankind. In these tales, the sea is positioned as a tool of the fates and a place where we are confronted with our humanity.

This particularly reins true in Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Inspired by a second hand copy of George Crabbe’s book The Borough, Britten personifies the loneliness, isolation and psychosis of a fisherman living in a village beside the sea.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Peter is a single fisherman accused of killing his apprentice who at sea. The village lawyer claims the boy’s death was accidental and subsequently deems Peter innocent without the need for trail. However, Peter is advised not to take another helper until he marries a warm hearted woman. Widow and school teacher Ellen promises to assist Peter in making a better life for himself and agrees to fetch him a new assistant named John. Peter’s hopes of marrying Ellen are compromised when she discovers a bruise on John’s shoulder. Peter rebuffs her by declaring it was an accident. Growing increasingly aggravated at Ellen’s involvement and accusations, he hits her in plain view of some villagers.

"Peter Grimes" performed by Opera North at the Grand Theatre

“Peter Grimes” performed by Opera North at the Grand Theatre

A mob gathers around Peter’s home prompting him to instruct John to climb down the cliff to his boat in an effort to escape. John slips and falls to his death while Peter escapes in the boat. The next day, Peter’s boat is found with no sign of him or John, but Ellen discovers a jersey she knitted for John floating ashore. Another mob goes after Peter, convinced he has killed his second apprentice. Ellen finds Peter and urges him to come home, but he is convinced by a an old captain to take his own life at sea instead. In the morning, a coast guard reports a boat is sinking offshore, but is dismissed by the villagers.

Both audiences and villagers will never know whether Peter Grimes is innocent in the deaths of both apprentices. The sea either provides the means for Peter to escape the constant scrutiny of the villagers or presents an appropriate death sentence for a murderous fisherman. Whichever it is, we can never be certain.

Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, is a suite written especially for an orchestral performance used in the scene changes within the initial opera. Experience the suite at Sea to Sea on Saturday, May 31 at 7:30pm in Hamilton Place.

Here’s a look at the mob scene from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes:




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