The Two Most Iconic Interpreters of Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’

By David Salazar

Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” had its world premiere on June 7, 1945, and was immediately an operatic success. Hailed as a masterwork, Britten’s most famous opera has been a major staple in almost every opera house around the world.

And while there have been numerous tenors that have staked their claim on the role, there are perhaps no artists better associated with the opera than Peter Pears and Jon Vickers.

Pears starred in the world premiere of the opera on that fateful day in 1945. He would be the first to record the Britten masterwork, in 1948, and subsequently recorded it twice more, with the composer himself conducting, in 1958 and 1969. The last of these is also available on DVD.

Critics have noted that his interpretation was that of “an alienated dreamer, a misfit in a narrow-minded town.”

Then came Vickers, who essentially dominated the role from the first time he performed it at the Metropolitan Opera, his interpretation a far cry from Pears’. Where Pears was a misfit the audience was to sympathize with, Vickers’ was a tortured soul on the fringe thanks to rejection.

“His Grimes was one moment lost in reverie, the next exploding with brutality. His bleakly poignant portrayal and fearsome singing altered the public perception of the role,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini in an obituary for Vickers.

It is Vickers’ recording that remains the one by which all others are measured. That historic record came in 1978, when the tenor joined forces with Sir Colin Davis at the Royal Opera House. Vickers’ performance was also preserved on video in 1981, in a production that allows the viewer to truly see the intensity of Vickers’ work in the role.

The Metropolitan Opera recently released a 1967 recording of Vickers’ very first run in the role as part of a set celebrating the opera company’s 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center.

To compare how these two titans interpreted this incredible opera, check out the videos below.

Which is your favorite “Peter Grimes” interpreter and why? Tell us in the comments below!



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