Benjamin Britten wrote a number of well-regarded operas, but his undeniable masterpiece is “Peter Grimes.”
The work, which premiered on June 7, 1945, remains one of the most influential operas of all time for its musical brilliance but also dramatic weight. It features one of the most complex characters in the canon.
The work was a massive success from its first performance and has remained one of the major operas in the canon. It is, for many, the greatest opera written in the English language.
Short Plot Summary
A prologue sees Peter Grimes questioned over the death of his apprentice. The community wants him punished but he is ultimately seen as innocent when the coroner concludes the death to be accidental. He is told not to get another apprentice, to which Grimes protests. He is comforted by Ellen Orford despite the rage of the community.
Everyone shuns Grimes when he asks for help. He reveals that he has a new apprentice. A storm approaches. Tension rises in the pub until Ellen arrives with Grimes’ apprentice, both drenched. Grimes sets off with his apprentice to the hut.
Ellen finds scars on the apprentice John’s neck. She confronts Grimes only to be beaten by him. He runs off. Others notice his behavior.
Grimes has disappeared, as has John. Balstrode, one of Grimes’ friends, has found a jersey ashore, which Ellen recognizes as the one she knitted for John. The crowd is incited by Mrs. Sedley to go after Grimes, thinking him a murderer. Grimes is driven insane by the death of John and is convinced by Balstrode to sink his boat. He obliges.
Watch and Listen
Here is one of the great recordings of the opera, starring Jon Vickers in the title role.