Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes (1945)

Opera in Prologue and Three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

This is another of my “apprehensive” reviews. I’m not sure if, apart from the fact that Forman specifically stated he had wanted to review this, I should have written it at all.

SETTING: A coastal village in Suffolk, late-19th century. Peter Grimes, a fisherman, is believed to have drowned his last apprentice, but with no evidence that it was anything but an accident at sea he can not be convicted, but the entire town, excluding Ellen Orford, the village schoolmistress, believes he is a murderer.

1969 FILM:


PROLOGUE & ACT 1 (53 minutes)

Prologue: The Inquest.

8: The Prologue is good stage drama but low on musical, well, accompaniment. Much of it  is a cappella with occasional outbursts from the orchestra. There is some agitation as the trial audience leaves and an exposed duet for Grimes and the town school teacher Ellen (the main female character) but otherwise we have to get to the first of Britten’s six intermezzi ** (this one entitled “Dawn”) before anything worth mentioning from a musical standpoint occurs.

ACT 1:

Scene 1: The village street.

12: Considered the best scene overall in the opera: An off-stage chorus comes in as the orchestra continues with the intermezzo *.

16: Peter calls for help *, takes a while before anyone even considers helping him. The town apothecary, Ned Keene, finally does with the help of Balstrode, a retired skipper. Keene tells Grimes that he has found a new apprentice for him but no one is willing to fetch the boy from the factory town for Peter.

21: Ellen volunteers and is condemned by the villagers. Ellen decides to pull gospel references on them in order to shut them up * in an aria that could have been out of Puccini’s Suor Angelica. 

25: A storm is coming *, because what else could happen in a fishing village in Suffolk? The company expresses various superstitious beliefs regarding storms.

29: Grimes expresses his life ambitions to the one person who will listen: Balstrode * who later deserts him, allowing Peter to think before the storm.

Scene 2: The village pub.

33, 39, 45, 50: The second intermezzo * is obviously “Storm”. Afterwards the villagers crowed into Auntie’s The Boar pub. Some of these are incredibly ornery (the sopranos are all obnoxious), but Auntie’s contralto sustains much better *. Peter’s arrival causes Mrs Sedley to faint and Grimes embarks on a rather lovely (if spacey) aria about the horoscope **. The village preacher makes a series of accusations that border on rumours of pedophilia. Peter tries to lift up the level * of the ensemble that follows but it all gets killed as Ellen arrives with the boy.

ACT 2: (48 minutes)

Scene 1: The village street again.

0, 5, 15, 18, 20, 26: The third intermezzo * “Sunday Morning”. Probably the least interesting. Ellen arrives and talks with the boy (his name is John, and he is apparently mute although Ellen claims that he will talk and she will knit), watching as the villagers go to church. The only interesting thing about what she says are her recounting of her experience when she first started teaching *. A worship service occurs while she realizes that John’s coat is torn and his neck is bruised. Peter arrives and orders the boy to come with him. Ellen questions him as to how John was injured. Although he at first causes her to feel rejected, he gets back into her good graces. Eventually he strikes her and takes John with him to the ocean. This prompts an orchestral climax, and the emptying of the church followed by gossip about Grimes, as in lots of untruths. They try to force Ellen to reveal what she knows which sort of happens in an odd aria *. Next, gossip is ‘put on trial”. Auntie and the ornery soprano prosties do their stuff * with Ellen.

Scene 2: Grimes’ hut.

30: A disturbing intermezzo entitled “Passacaglia” *.

35, 38, 40, 42, 45: Peter tells the boy where to go in the most bel canto way * and after finding that the fish are ready for catching, refutes at least the rumours that he isn’t interested in Ellen. It turns lyrical **, if still boring, it is also hard to believe that Peter Pears could ever be that interested in any woman. He eventually goes back to thinking about his old apprentice (deceased), he ends up doing part of the monologue in speech form before the villagers are finally heard *. The boy falls to his death *, Grimes tries to follow after him, and some of the male townspeople go into the house. They find nothing amiss so they leave. There is one odd theme (celesta and violin?) that is worth looking out for which occurs twice, once when Grimes goes out to find the boy, then when Balstrode follows down at the end of the act.

ACT 3: (39 minutes)

Scene 1: The village street.

0: Another intermezzo *, this one entitled “Moonlight”. Then we get the prosties doing their ornery stuff. Keene comes out of the shop drunk. Mrs Sedley comes on and claims she has evidence that Grimes is a serial killer.

11: Ellen’s aria **, oddly good, as she talks about bringing silk into

17, 22: Balstrode tries to figure out what to do about Grimes *. Sedley comes on and annoys everyone, especially Auntie. The whole town comes out of the woodwork * as they all decide to punish Peter. This is probably the closest thing to a Broadway style number in the opera.

Scene 2: The same, a while later.

24: The last (and shortest) of the intermezzi, also considered the best * somehow as Peter Grimes returns to the village totally blurry eyed and messed up. Perhaps this is because it is meant to depict Grimes’ mental state. The villagers are heard off-stage like the villagers marching up to Frankenstein’s castle.

31, 34: Ellen comes with Balstrode to take Grimes’ home. Now the off-stage chorusing actually takes on an eery quality **. Balstrode tells Peter to take the boat out into open water and sink it. The finale ***: there is an interlude, not an intermezzo, for it is much too short although it is based on the themes from the first scene of act one. Auntie says it is all just rumours as Ellen is left alone to contemplate what she knows is happening (and probably also the end of her social life). A rather striking conclusion (using reused music) to a otherwise sort of meh opera.


The libretto of Peter Grimes is far more interesting than its score. Taken as a stage drama, it actually is rather good psychological drama, but the music on the other hand is a different story. It is never atonal, but rather pentatonic, similarly to Puccini’s Suor Angelica or Debussy. This leaves most of it rather boring, but it does have some moments that salvage it. The intermezzi are nice, and Grimes himself gets some good solo numbers. The finale is also rather impressive. Ellen is a good character, although her music is a little dreary. Balstrode is the only other character, other than Aunite, who is really all that sympathetic. This 1969 film production really holds up well, you wouldn’t guess it wasn’t from the 1980s or 1990s. The rest is okay, although I will admit that now that I have heard Peter Grimes once, I won’t do it again. A beta.

8 responses to “Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes (1945)”

  1. I’m not convinced by Britten. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is magical, but Peter Grimes is so dreary we walked out of the cinema broadcast after Act I. And Billy Budd needs more girls. (The Britten / Rodgers & Hammerstein mashup: “There is nothing like a dame!”)


    1. Do you think I am too kind here with Britten? I think I am being too nice by saying beta here but I also know I can’t judge a mid-20th century score the same way I would Die Fliegende Hollander.


      1. Doesn’t beta mean a good opera (but not as brilliant as an alpha)? Wouldn’t gamma or even delta be more appropriate for an opera you don’t want to hear again?


      2. I had thought that I would like Peter Grimes more than I did. It is in most books as one of the 100 best operas, although having heard it I’m not sure if I agree.


      3. Britten is one of the few 20th century composers writing after Turandot who’s anywhere near the mainstream repertoire. Peter Grimes is also grim and dour, so it gets bonus points. Dream, though, has a beautiful ending.


  2. Well, I have to consider things like public popularity, the plot vs. the crappy music. I actually liked the story of Peter Grimes (if it were a stage play I think it would be a lot better, a good psychological drama both macro “the village” and micro “Grimes himself”). But Britten’s score doesn’t usually help the libretto at all, at least to me. But this might just be my bias against anything written after 1925. Other people LOVE this thing. But yes, I find it dreary, although the ending did legitimately impress me.

    Beta really means an okay opera, something that is usually flawed on one level, gamma is something that is very obviously just flawed on multiple levels. Beta plus or Alpha minus are “good operas” (for me, Forman never used the terms), above that are brilliant alpha operas and then the rare alpha plus. “Delta” operas have to be both musically boring and uncomfortably disturbing to me either within themselves or as a result of their productions. So far only Rachmaninoff’s “The Misery Knight” has accomplished that. Gammas can be something I wouldn’t watch again, or something I would, but they are obviously flawed, like Cagnoni’s Re Lear.

    Naturally, all of this methodology will probably evolve over time.


  3. Maybe I will review AMSND next, but after I finish Les Brigands. Listening to Ba-ta-clan.

    Maybe I should write an opera.


  4. I think this is one of the most haunting, evocative, beautiful and affecting of all opera scores, easily Britten’s greatest opera. So I think it might be a personal taste thing when it comes to the music.


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