You could make an entire opera out of what Britten puts into the prologue of Peter Grimes. Grimes, a fisherman, has brought his boy apprentice home dead after a storm at sea. Under the low, sloping roof of the Moot hall, crowded with townsfolk, the inquest decides it was an accident – but Grimes is warned not to get another boy apprentice.
So the opera begins, not with the high drama of a storm but with the choking atmosphere of suspicion that Grimes cannot escape. Between the high walls that glisten like damp stone, he is trapped under the watching eyes of his neighbours.
Paul Steinberg’s sets manage to capture the fishing-town feel, at once bleak and claustrophobic. But the visual style of the production is almost expressionist, with its high, slanting blocks of architecture and stylised movement. Echoing the rumbling menace of the music, it hints at forces that will find violent expression sooner or later.
Act one, following the first sea interlude, begins with a slick beach, a wide open sky, and a sense of new beginnings. Grimes returns from fishing and shares his hopes for a fresh start with Ellen, the schoolteacher who loves him. He is obsessed by money, convinced that if he makes enough he can marry Ellen and silence his critics. The sky slowly darkens as he clings obstinately to his path.
Is Peter Grimes a tragedy of one self-destructive man, or of a society that has already judged and condemned an unlucky outsider? Certainly Grimes is no worse than most of his neighbours, and the sense of perversion and vice is only too graphic here. Auntie’s ‘nieces’, the main attraction at her pub, seem to have escaped from the League of Gentlemen, with their school uniforms and unison gestures. Gossipy old Mrs Sedley can’t wait for her fix from the apothecary. The pack of men who will go after Grimes have no moral high ground to take.
True, Grimes does lash out, even at Ellen. He withdraws to his hut by the collapsing cliff, on this stage hanging so precariously I really feared that tenor John Daszak might slide off it. He seems to relish his isolated status, and almost deliberately to let go of the rope that snakes away as the second boy apprentice falls to his death.
But the tragic end seemed inevitable from the start. The town wants a victim, not a redeemable hero. Grimes sings in Act two – ‘Is it wrong to struggle, to hope, to live – right to die?’ The dramatic climax, the death of the boy, is all over by the end of that act. The final act is about Grimes, the impossibility of escape, how he will meet his end.
Having grown up with the tuneful, easy music Britten wrote for schools, I was unprepared for the richness and emotional challenge of Peter Grimes. The lyrical sea interludes paint pictures in the mind better than any stage set could. From the jagged folksy celebration of the dance at the Moot hall, to the chilling discords of the crowd hunting for Grimes, singing his name again and again, the small town is revealed as a character in its own right.
And then there is the lonely voice of Grimes himself, his music pulling forth the agony of a man who knows his fate but never knew how to escape it. He never even gets a last confrontation with the crowd, a last chance to put his side of the story. While they are still a distant baying chorus, he slips away, puts out to sea for the last time, leaving his girl and his friend together on the stark, empty shore.