When you think about the countries producing opera, you probably think of Italy, with compositions by Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti. Or Germany, with Wagner; or perhaps France, with compositions by Bizet. (Of course, I expect you to think of the U.S., too – not just because of my day job – but because composers like John Adams, Jake Heggie and Laura Kaminsky are a big part of the art form in this country today.)
But how about England? Sure, the country make sa big mark on opera and Baroque music with contributions from Henry Purcell in the late 17th century, but what else? If you don’t count the contributions of Gilbert and Sullivan as opera, then there’s a bit of a dry spell between Purcell’s death in 1695 and the debut of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945.
The Princeton Festival is offering the chance for you to expand your operatic exposure through their performances of Peter Grimes this month on Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 p.m.; Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 23 at 3:00 p.m. at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
Peter Grimes is just one of the many offerings from The Princeton Festival, the annual summer performance festival in Princeton (but I bet you already guessed most of that description!). Over several weeks, this year’s Festival offers a silent film with oratorio, a Sondheim musical, piano competition, jazz music, dance performances and a cappella music and more.
Peter Grimes is the first full opera by Benjamin Britten (if you don’t count his earlier operetta Paul Bunyan). But it is not the last – Britten goes on to create such enduring operas as Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring and Noye’s Fludde.
What’s Peter Grimes about? Funny you should ask…
So the opera takes place in a costal village in Suffolk, England. Peter Grimes is a fisherman and an apprentice of his has just died at sea. An inquest is held to see if Grimes is responsible and the coroner (Mr. Swallow) then determines that the cause was an accident, though he warns Grimes not to get another apprentice. The assembled townsfolk are pretty sure that Grimes is guilty, but disperse following the verdict. Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolteacher and woman Grimes hopes to marry, tells him not to worry – that she’ll help him make a better future.
But Grimes is stubborn if nothing else, and he arranges for another boy apprentice from the local workhouse. (Sigh. There’s no way this counts as a spoiler alert, but I think this is sooooo not going to turn out well for Grimes or the boy.) Peter Grimes really wants to marry Ellen, but he’s determined to get rich first, convinced that both actions will silence the town gossips that plague him. (Though really, someone should tell him that suddenly getting rich and marrying are hardly likely to silence gossipy tongues!) So of course, a huge storm comes through town and Grimes marches off to collect his new apprentice and drag him through the storm to get to work.
On Sunday, Ellen is talking with the apprentice and notices some new bruises on the boy. When she confronts him over this, Grimes hits her, takes the boy and runs. The town has seen all this unfold, of course, so the men set out after Grimes and his apprentice. In the meantime, Grimes has ordered the boy to get ready for fishing, which means having to climb down the newly-crumbling cliff (convenient!) as the townsfolk close in. Grimes gets panicky, urging the boy to move more quickly. Of course, the apprentice slips and falls to his death.
A few days later, the townsfolk are whipped up into a frenzy against Grimes and begin a manhunt. Grimes appears and sings a long monologue – it seems like the apprentice’s death has seriously unhinged him. An older member of the town comes by and tells Grimes that he should escape, taking his boat out one last time. (If that sounds ominous, it’s with good reason.) Grimes does take his boat out and it sinks (or does he sink it deliberately?) which is reported a little while later by the coast guard.
So yes, the plot of Grimes is a little depressing, tragic and (for me, at least) frustrating. I just always wish Grimes listened to a little reason. I wish the townsfolk weren’t quick to judgment. I wish the workhouse cared a little more for the kids it sends out as apprentices. I wish Ellen had better taste in men. (I could go on, but I think you get the point.)
The story of Peter Grimes is based on a narrative poem of the same title by George Crabbe (Montagu Slater wrote the opera libretto, however.) Britten read the poem in 1941 and strongly identified with the story and with the character of Peter Grimes. Although in the Crabbe story, Grimes is a bit of a clear-cut villain, in Britten’s hands, the character became more complex – as much victim as villain. (It is perhaps comes as no surprise that Benjamin Britten is rather famously a tortured artist.) Britten had written that the overarching vision of his opera is about “a subject very close to my heart — the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” Britten spent much of his life struggling with feelings of being an outcast, due to his sexuality and the societal views of that time.
Britten’s operas, including Peter Grimes, are powerful and enduring works – and for good reason. Despite your fears of 20th century music, Britten’s compositions are surprisingly tuneful and in Peter Grimes, they are powerfully evocative of the small town sea-faring life of which Britten was well familiar. His operas are dramatic and Peter Grimes is no exception with a gripping plot that keeps the viewer captivated. And not only is the plot gripping, but its characters are believable and complex.
If you’re looking for more information on Peter Grimes and Benjamin Britten, The Princeton Festival is offering a series of free lectures, open to the public. There is “Peter Grimes vs. The Masses” on Tuesday, June 14 at 7:00 p.m. at Princeton Public Library; “The Enduring Tale of Peter Grimes” on Wednesday, June 16 at at 7:00 p.m. at Mercer County Library’s Lawrence Branch and again on Wednesday, June 22 at 7:00 p.m. at Princeton Public Library; and “Meeting Peter Grimes” on Saturday, June 19 at 6:00 p.m. at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre.
Although Peter Grimes is written and performed in English, The Princeton Festival will present the work with English supertitles projected above the stage, so you, lucky listener and reader, won’t miss a thing!
Princeton Festival presents Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on Saturday June 18 at 8:00 p.m.; Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 23 at 3:00 p.m. The opera runs about 3 hours with one intermission; it is sung in English with English supertitles. Attendees at the opening night performance are invited to attend a free Meet-the-Artists reception following the performance. Performances take place on the Matthews stage of McCarter Theatre Center, located at 91 University Place in Princeton, NJ. Performance tickets (which range from $30 to $140) may by purchased through McCarter at mccarter.org or 609.258.2787. For more information about the Princeton Festival, visit princetonfestival.org.