Michael Tanner

Figure of mystery

What is wrong with Peter Grimes, the central figure of Britten’s eponymous opera? Or should the question be: what is wrong with Peter Grimes? For though there is no question that the opera makes a powerful and disturbing impression in a decent performance, it turns out always to be rather difficult to locate the focus of the work.

What is wrong with Peter Grimes, the central figure of Britten’s eponymous opera? Or should the question be: what is wrong with Peter Grimes? For though there is no question that the opera makes a powerful and disturbing impression in a decent performance, it turns out always to be rather difficult to locate the focus of the work.

What is wrong with Peter Grimes, the central figure of Britten’s eponymous opera? Or should the question be: what is wrong with Peter Grimes? For though there is no question that the opera makes a powerful and disturbing impression in a decent performance, it turns out always to be rather difficult to locate the focus of the work.

In the revival at the Royal Opera of Willy Decker’s production, revived by François de Carpentries, there is minimal characterisation of the minor figures in the drama, though the cast-list is a starry one, and the mainly black and white staging of John Macfarlane does seem to endorse Britten’s claim that he had tried ‘to express [his] awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea’. Yet while Britten’s music never allows us to forget the elements, and the dependence of most things that happen to the characters on the weather and the sea, it seems to be at least as much about the turmoil within Grimes and the problems that the anfractuosities of his nature create with all his relationships.

Adrian Mourby, the ubiquitous contributor of operatic programme notes, suggests that Grimes is lacking in ‘the necessary social skills’, and while it may be that the Borough would be improved by having a psychiatric social worker among its members, who could sort out that kind of problem, somehow it seems to me that the issue goes beyond that into a more intractable realm.

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