MUSIC BY BENJAMIN BRITTEN
LIBRETTO BY MONTAGU SLATER
BASED ON THE POEM “THE BOROUGH” BY GEORGE CRABBE
RICHARD TANG YUK, CONDUCTOR
Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Libretto by Montagu Slater
Premiere: June 7, 1945, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
A coastal village in Suffolk, England
Peter Grimes is questioned at an inquest over the death at sea of his apprentice. The townsfolk make it clear that they think Grimes is guilty and deserving of punishment. The coroner, Mr. Swallow, determines the boy’s death to be accidental and clears Grimes (without a proper trial). But he advises Grimes not to get another apprentice unless he lives with a woman who can care for the boy. As the court is cleared, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress whom Grimes wishes to marry as soon as he gains the Borough’s respect, assures him she will help him find a new and better life. He rages against the community’s unwillingness to give him a second chance.
The same, some days later
Orchestral Interlude I (“Dawn”)
The chorus, who constitute “the Borough,” sing of their weary daily round and their relationship with the sea and the seasons. Captain Balstrode warns of an approaching storm. Grimes asks for help to haul his boat ashore, but is shunned. Belatedly, Balstrode and the apothecary Ned Keene help Grimes. Keene tells Grimes that he has found him a new apprentice (named John) from the workhouse. Only Ellen offers to fetch the boy, in spite of the criticism of the townfolk (“Let her among you without fault…”).
As the storm approaches, most of the community – after securing windows and equipment – take shelter in The Bear, the town pub. Grimes stays outside and confesses his ambitions to Balstrode. He wants to make his fortune with a “good catch,” buy a good home and marry Ellen Orford. Balstrode suggests “without your booty [Ellen] will have you now,” only to provoke Grimes’s furious “No, not for pity!” Balstrode leaves, and Grimes ruminates on “What harbor shelters peace?”
Orchestral Interlude II (“Storm”)
The storm arrives with a vengeance. In the pub, tensions are rising due both to the storm and to the fiery Methodist fisherman, Bob Boles. He is getting drunk and increasingly lustful for the pub’s main attractions, proprietor Auntie’s two “nieces.” Grimes suddenly enters (“Now the Great Bear and Pleiades…”), and his wild appearance unites almost the entire community in their fear of his “temper.” Ned Keene saves the situation by starting a round (“Old Joe has gone fishing”). Ellen arrives with the apprentice, both drenched. Grimes immediately sets off to his hut, apprentice in tow, despite the storm.
The same, some weeks later
Orchestral interlude III (“Sunday Morning”)
On a Sunday morning, while most of the Borough is at church, Ellen talks with John, the apprentice. She is horrified to find a bruise on his neck. When she confronts Grimes, he claims it was an accident. Growing agitated at her mounting concern and interference, he strikes her and runs off with the boy. Keene, Auntie, and Bob Boles, then the chorus, comment on the incident. A mob of men, bent on investigating Grimes’s hut, marches off, Ellen, Auntie, and the nieces sing sadly of the relationship of women with men.
Orchestral interlude IV (Passacaglia)
At his hut, Grimes makes John change from Sunday clothes into fisherman’s gear, then gets lost in memories of his previous apprentice, reliving the boy’s death from thirst. He quickly returns to reality when he hears the mob approaching. Stirred by a paranoid belief that John has been “gossiping” with Ellen, thus provoking the “odd procession,” he defiantly gets ready to set out to sea. He tells John to be careful climbing down the cliff to his boat, but to no avail: the boy falls to his death and Grimes flees. When the mob reaches the hut Grimes is gone, so they disperse. Balstrode, however, stays behind. Guided by intuition, he walks to the cliff and looks down.
The same, several days later; night time in the Borough
Orchestral interlude V (“Moonlight”)
During a dance Mrs. Sedley tries unsuccessfully to convince Ned Keene and the authorities that Grimes is a murderer. Ellen and Balstrode confide in each other: Grimes has returned after many days at sea, and Balstrode has discovered a jersey washed ashore, which Ellen recognizes as one she knitted for John. Mrs. Sedley overhears this, and with the knowledge that Grimes has returned, she is able to instigate another mob. Singing “Him who despises us we’ll destroy,” the villagers go off in search of Grimes.
Orchestral interlude VI
The chorus can be heard searching for Grimes. He appears onstage, singing a long monologue sparsely accompanied by cries from the off-stage chorus and by a fog horn (represented by a solo tuba). John’s death seems to have shattered Grimes’s sanity. Ellen and Balstrode find him, but the delusional fisherman barely recognizes them. The old captain encourages Grimes to escape this life by taking his boat out to sea and sinking it out from under him. Ballard and Ellen help him aboard and Grimes floats out to sea. The next morning, the Borough begins its day anew, as if nothing has happened. There is a report from the coast guard of a ship sinking off the coast. This is dismissed by Auntie as “one of these rumors.”
Edits and additions by The Princeton Festival