Next Friday will mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, born November 22, 1913, on St. Cecilia's Day, as it turns out, as St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music. That evening, in NYC, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and a lineup of all American (AFAICT) singers will give a concert performance at Carnegie Hall of Britten's opera Peter Grimes, in honor of the Britten centenary. Said forces are giving a 'preview' performance tonight in STL, which is where 3CM is now (hence another autobot posting here).
Peter Grimes is certainly Britten's most famous opera, and has pretty strong claim to be the greatest English-language opera ever written. That's all the more remarkable given the disturbing nature of the story, with such elements in the mix as social ostracism, religious bigotry, and child abuse, for starters. More below the flip.....
By way of warm up, to get everyone on the same page, the SLSO's program note is at this link, with a quick synopsis. If you really want to go to town, the libretto is accessible here or here (although it has the odd inaccuracy, but it's close enough). Obviously this diary will have plot spoiler alerts, so you've been warned (i.e. you should at least read the synopsis, if not the whole libretto). In addition, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch classical critic Sarah Bryan Miller had this preview article this past Sunday, which is a good introduction for newbies to the work. The original literary inspiration was a long poem by George Crabbe, as Miller notes:
"Britten was struck by the epic poem 'The Borough,' by the 18th century poet George Crabbe. Its stories of the inhabitants of the fishing village of Aldeburgh in Britten’s native Suffolk, and especially the section on the fisherman Peter Grimes, spoke to him....."Miller also notes that:
"The Grimes of the opera, while rough and unpleasant, is more sympathetic than in Crabbe’s poem.You see what I meant about child abuse. The first apprentice died at sea, before the opera itself begins, when he and Grimes "caught a huge catch, too big to sail". The inquest into the first apprentice's death, which forms the Prologue to the opera, concludes that the death was under "accidental circumstances", but the lawyer, Swallow, advises Grimes not to take on any more boy apprentices, but instead to work with a fellow adult fisherman. Grimes pleads that:
"With greedy eye he look'd on all he saw;Crabbe’s Grimes is evil; Britten’s is nuanced, more misunderstood than bad. Britten and Pears clearly intended him as a victim of homophobia; other interpreters have taken him down other paths.
He knew not justice, and he laugh'd at law;
On all he mark'd, he stretch'd his ready hand;
He fish'd by water and he filch'd by land'
In both versions, the tragedy is built around Grimes’ apprentice boys, orphans from the workhouse with no defense from Grimes’ beatings and overwork. But when first one and then another die, the Borough rises up. 'Grimes is at his exercise,' is the refrain in both."
"Like every other fishermanHowever, as you'll note from the synopsis, things don't go so well with apprentice #2. I'll talk about the second apprentice death in a bit. You can watch a clip of the Prologue here (warning: the subtitles are in French):
I have to have an apprentice.
I must have help"
Grimes isn't totally friendless in the Borough, per Miller's article:
"Grimes has his defenders, chiefly Captain Balstrode, a fishing captain, and Ellen Orford, a widowed schoolteacher. The village is his enemy. When they decide that murder has been done, they turn into a mob."If anything, Balstrode is the one character who is the most clear-eyed about Grimes' faults and problems with not treating his apprentices well. In Act I, Balstrode pretty much advises Grimes to 'get out of Dodge' and try to make his fortune elsewhere:
"Why not try the wider seaBalstrode also reveals how Grimes is infamous in the Borough:
With merchantman or privateer?"
"You’d slip these moorings if you had the mind."
"You’ll find no comfort there.But Grimes won't see sense and move on, partly because:
When an urchin’s quarrelsome
Brawling at his little games,
Mother stops him with a threat,
“You’ll be sold to Peter Grimes!”
"I am native, rooted here"But Grimes also thinks he can prove himself to the Borough:
"These Borough gossipsOf course, Grimes is still trying to "win" on what he sees as the Borough's terms. Balstrode repeats the inquest advice that Grimes should work without apprentices. However, Grimes refuses, and Balstrode sings in frustration that Grimes is setting himself up for the problem to occur again (and again):
Listen to money
Only to money:
I’ll fish the sea dry,
Sell the good catches–
That wealthy merchant
Grimes will set up
Household and shop
You will all see it!"
"BALSTRODE: Then the old tragedy is in store;At the end of Act I, after Ned Keene, the local apothecary, has brought in the new apprentice, Ellen Orford entrusts him to Grimes' care. Unfortunately, in Act II, on Sunday outside the church, when Ellen and the apprentice are spending some quiet time together, she notices a tear in his coat, and then bruises. She then says:
New start with new 'prentice, just as before.
GRIMES: What Peter Grimes decides is his affair.
BALSTRODE: You fool, man, you fool!
GRIMES: Are you my conscience?
BALSTRODE: Might as well
Try to shout the wind down
As to tell the obvious truth."
"A bruise.If you think about it, that line is kind of scary, as if she's not surprised, if disappointed. In other words, Ellen knew that the risk of Peter mistreating his new apprentice again was there, like Balstrode. But unlike Balstrode, she didn't have the sense not to entrust another apprentice with Grimes. She and Grimes have a confrontation just as the service is ending, which culminates as follows:
Well, it's begun."
"ELLEN: Were we mistaken when we schemedThis then leads to the chorus smugly singing the line that "Grimes is at his exercise". In the course of the opera, it's easy to come to the conclusion that the Borough consists mainly of a bunch of judgmental bigots, particular the laudunum-soaked biddy Mrs. Sedley and the resident fundie bigot, Bob Boles (who also hits on the "nieces" at the tavern in Act I, major big time hypocrisy).
To solve your life by lonely toil?
GRIMES: Wrong to plan?
Wrong to try?
Wrong to live?
Right to die?
ELLEN: Were we mistaken when we dreamed
That we’d come through and all be well?
PETER: Wrong to struggle?
Wrong to hope?
Then the Borough's
ELLEN: Peter! You cannot buy your peace
You’ll never stop the gossips’ talk
With all the fish from out the sea.
We were mistaken to have dreamed…
Peter! We've failed. We've failed.
(He cries out as if in agony. Then strikes her. The basket falls.)"
Yet in a sad way, on one point, even the village nabobs and bigots were right: Grimes has no business having apprentices in his care. They're mean, and seem to want him to fail, but that doesn't negate the fundamental truth that they're correct about Grimes and his seemingly inescapable tendency for screwing things up with the apprentices. This is one point raised in one of the most hostile articles about Peter Grimes in the past 10 years or so, by James Fenton here in The Guardian, where he characterizes the opera as "powerful but inadvertently immoral". His general assessment of the ethos of the work is fairly on the mark:
'.....the piece as a whole invites us to sympathise with Grimes and to condemn the society in which he lives, to sympathise with the school-teacher Ellen Orford (who loves Grimes and helps him acquire his workhouse boy) and think harshly of such Aldeburgh worthies as the laudanum-addicted Mrs Sedley, who realises that apprentice number two must be dead at sea."Yet Fenton goes on to quote a contemporary critic at the time of the opera's premiere:
'Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who in 1945 was a critic on the New Statesman, wrote that "what neither composer nor librettist seems to realise is that, after all, the sympathetic schoolmarm was wrong (and therefore, in effect, an accessory in the second boy's death), whereas poor Mrs Sedley was dead right." And he said there was "something shocking in the attempt to win our sympathies for a character simply because he is an outlaw and an enemy of society.'Fenton concludes:
"In the end, Ellen Orford witnesses the broken Grimes being instructed to commit suicide. She does nothing to save his life, apart from, as Slater puts it, "sobbing quietly". Like Grimes, she ends up with blood on her hands. She's as bad as Aldeburgh [sic] says she is."Actually, it's not that simple, as Fenton would very judgmentally have it. The reason is as follows. To set up the rationale, in the scene just before, the Borough folk have worked themselves up into a vicious (and half-drunk) mob, out for blood, even though the smaller all-male mob at the end of Act II that went to Grimes' hut actually distracted Grimes in his hut, which caused him to let go of the rope that his new apprentice was holding on to, which then caused the new apprentice's death. In Act III, the point is that if the mob had found Grimes, they would have lynched him. This is what the chorus sings as they settle into a lynch mob:
"Who holds himself apartThey then raise the roof when they shout out his name. It may be the scariest depiction of a lynch mob in all of opera, maybe even all of theater of any sort, granted that there may not be that many examples. The next scene of Act III shows Captain Balstrode and Ellen Orford with Grimes at the end. In rebuttal to James Fenton, my point is that had the mob found Grimes, they would have lynched him without a thought. It's not hard to imagine them also harming Captain Balstrode and Ellen Orford also, in their fury. Three unarmed people against a mob....not good odds. Fundamentally, this is why Balstrode advises Grimes to:
Lets his pride rise.
Him who despises us
And cruelty becomes
Him who despises us
Our curse shall fall upon his evil day. We shall
Tame his arrogance.
We’ll make the murderer pay for his crime."
"Sail out till you lose sight of land.By the way, this is the one moment in the opera which uses speech, not music, for the words. The situation is awful, but given Grimes' situation, short of actually escaping away from The Borough (remember that he didn't listen to Balstrode earlier), it's pretty much the only way out.
Then sink the boat."
What's ultimately sad in this one aspect of the opera is the idea that people may want to change, in this case Grimes, but he just can't. This is why it's eminently sensible advice that Grimes should not take on any more apprentices, but he won't listen. The Peter Grimes in the STL performance tonight and at Carnegie Hall next Friday, Anthony Dean Griffey, has this take on Grimes, per Miller's article:
'For Griffey, Grimes is “a person who is misunderstood, who wants what we all want, to be understood, to be loved, to be cared for. There are several layers to Peter’s psyche has seveal layers. If you go back to the Crabbe poem, you understand that his father was quite hard on him. It’s very hard for him to know what love and care are. He wants that, but he doesn’t know exactly how to go about finding that.”Ultimately, Peter Grimes isn't exactly a happy night out on the town, to be sure, where the "bad guys", if they don't exactly "win", at least prevail. This may be partly why at the end, even with the report of a boat sinking at sea, the Borough goes about its business as if nothing has happened, in spite of being a howling, vicious mob the night before. It's as if now that they've "purged" the bad apple in their midst, all's well. Grimes is no saint, to be sure, but he does seem to reflect the world that produced him. He may be bad, or flawed, but the Borough seems worse, it would appear.
Growing up in a small town, 'I understand how some people who are different and eccentric, who march to a different drummer, are treated. I think that Peter Grimes is definitely holding a mirror up to society.'
If you're up for the experience, you can listen via KWMU 90.7 (a.k.a. St. Louis Public Radio) via this page as a gateway (no pun intended) to the webcast. Otherwise, you can now either:
1. Chit chat about the opera (or if you're actually listening to the webcast, the performance), or:
2. Observe the usual SNLC protocol.
I'll be back (hopefully) to catch up on comments after the performance. However......