Anyone tempted to doubt that Benjamin Britten was a supremely accomplished dramatic composer should look and listen no further than to Peter Grimes. And not just to the courtroom drama in the Moot Hall, or the storm that swirls around Auntie’s or the manhunt at the end of the opera. The drama is also there in each of those haunting sea interludes, which are of course anything but interludes being intrinsic to the drama as they deepen our understanding of the characters at the heart of the opera.
When I first saw Grimes, way back when, at the old Sadler’s Wells with Peter Pears in the lead, my neighbour up at the very top of the house – a Sadler’s Wells veteran who claimed that he had seen the very first production in June 1945 – told me that that he always thought of the sea interludes as sketches for a portrait of the doomed fisherman. I had completely forgotten this passing remark until watching the current production at the Coliseum. Edward Gardner and the ENO orchestra gave the first interlude a glinting glitter and whipped and cracked through the storm like I’ve never quite heard them before. Here was Grimes, held by the beauty of the calm sea. Grimes the visionary who sings of the ‘Great Bear and Pleiades’. And then the obsessivefisherman possessed by a kind of madness as he waits for his new apprentice.
Philip Reid, that doyen of Britten scholars, had already told us at the ENO pre-performance talk on 1 February that these interludes were composed as part of the main score for the opera, and not like so many interludes and entr’actes, after- thoughts by a composer who needed to cover an awkward transition in the drama or a long scene change.
Indeed, it’s only some time after the emotional effect of this opera has receded that you come to understand how carefully Peter Grimes is organised. And always organised around a particular history. Everything within Britten’s formidable technique, honed by writing for radio dramas and features for the BBC in the 1930s and polished during his time in the United States is brought to bear on this double portrait, of Grimes the outsider and the Borough, the community that hunts him down and into which he longs to be accepted.
Of course you need a cast too. And if there’s a finer Grimes than Stuart Skelton singing the role anywhere right now then I’ll eat my sou’wester! Elza van den Heever too is a tender Ellen Orford, but a woman who knows when the game is up. Who can forget her agonised hands locked together as Iain Patterson’s Captain Balstrode tells Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it. And then at the end we are back at the beginning. The sea that has swallowed Grimes dances and glitters in the sun. Britten, once again the consummate dramatist seems to suggest that all this will all happen again. And it will in a succession of operas that pit outsiders against society and map the betrayal of innocence.