Friday, June 03, 2016


Peter Grimes, the rejected rejectee and rejector


An opera like this one is surprising in many ways but this is a special BBC production of 1969 and I would like to insist first on the tremendous qualities of this production.

The first element is the setting. It is a complete village square surrounded by wooden houses all raised over the ground with outside staircases to go up to the main doors, what’s more on the flank of some steep rising shore. These raised houses insist on the danger the sea represents when a tidal wave or a storm comes up to the coast. All made of wood. That's a brilliant idea and yet it is entirely unrealistic. It wants to be out of time and set in a past that could make the story plausible, a past we can evaluate to be the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century. That village looks like a pioneering settlement in New England in the 17th century, a puritan settlement in a way where everyone is meddling with the business of all others because they are locked away from the world, and their only entertainment is to gossip and accuse the one they don't like of all abominable crimes, and that’s Peter Grimes.

The second element is the house of Peter Grimes, or “hut” if you prefer. It looks like an upturned ship hull, a dream for many seamen who want to live on the earth as if they were on their boats. It is not without recalling some other uses of that concept, and in a way it reminds me of Moby Dick and of the whale which swallowed Jonas. Here the boat is swallowing the seaman even on earth. But it is Peter Grimes’ house which means he lives in an upside down sea world, in a shipwrecked boat ready to sink. This image is a very sad and grim vision.

The third positive point is the use of crowds. The chorus is not in anyway set aside or gathered in one place, even a changing place on the stage. The chorus singers are dressed like normal sea fishermen and sailors and their wives the same, and they are moving as if they were a real crowd and that gives a good illusion of the mass movements of an at times hostile crowd when they are more or less chasing Peter Grimes, rather more than less.

The fourth point is the very clear distinction between the officials of the village and that crowd. They move alone and not along with a mass of people and they are dressed in a slightly different way. The lawyer and mayor for example with his red coat, or Ellen, the widowed school-teacher, with a knitted sweater and a big brooch. There is thus a clear distinction between the important people and the common people, on top of the fact that the former are the soloists.

The story is of course what is essential in that opera that is telling us a story. It is a very bleak story. Peter Grimes, a solitary sailor, needs an apprentice and he takes orphans from the workhouse in the next but rather distant city. The profession of fisherman is a very difficult profession with many hazards and we could say it is not a profession for children of let's say 10, or even 12, or 14 as for that. What's more Peter Grimes seems to be rather rough and careless. In other words his apprentices seem to die by accident in a rather repetitive way. Helped by Ellen at first, he is abandoned by her when she discovers that the new apprentice is being brutalized. One day when trying to run away from the hostile crowd climbing up to his hut, the new apprentice slips and falls off the cliff to his death. Peter Grimes hides away for a couple of days but he has to come back and there a retired merchant captain gives him the only piece of advice that would pacify the village: take your boat, go out at sea and sink the boat and yourself. And he does it.

The story is depicting a brutal world that is not so much so physically, but I would say socially. The people are meddling with their neighbors' business all the time, creating tension and stress and pushing people to the brink of sanity and causing over-reactions more than anything else. This is perfectly rendered in this production.

But there is an aspect of this story that has to be emphasized because it is a repetitive pattern in many operas. A poor boy abandoned by society and surviving in a workhouse (which refers to at the latest the 19th century) is “bought” by Peter Grimes to be his apprentice on his ship. Apparently his apprentices systematically die. The opera starts with the “trial” of the latest victim, but the Lawyer and Mayor who presides over the court shortens the debate and declares the death occurred in “accidental circumstances” to the high disagreement of the population of the shipping village because there will be no real trial.

We discover that an old spinster is playing the role of the moralistic and ethical accuser in the village in the name of God of course. Her campaign is effective because Peter Grimes lives alone in a “hut” higher up on the cliff. His “hut” is an upside down ship hull. He is in a relation with the widow who serves as the local teacher, Ellen Orford. She intervenes to soften the villagers’ feelings when the carter is asked to bring the next boy to Peter Grimes from the workhouse since he is going to the town, and he refuses to do it not to be the accomplice of a murder. She actually goes with him to make sure. The boy is delivered in the evening: he looks frightened and completely lost, which is normal after all since he is now an uprooted child from an institution where he was already uprooted, meaning with no parents, and exploited, meaning severely. We all think of Dickens and Oliver Twist.

But there will be no escape, no redemption, no salvation for that boy. That’s an important trait in Benjamin Britten’s operas: such uprooted boys will not find any good Samaritan who would take them under their protection. This twist is amplified by the hostility of the village against Peter Grimes. He is perceived as a loner, and a busy one at that, who is trying to do better than he should, fish more than he should, even go out on Sunday when everyone is resting since it is the day of the Lord. They perceive him as looking down upon them. And when they start their move towards lynching Peter Grimes they sing at the end “Him who despises us we will destroy.” In other words he is the “stranger” they reject because he does not live like them: he does not come to the pub to drink and take advantage of the nieces of the Auntie who is taking care of the pub-cum-inn where the sailors can rest-cum-entertain. And to make more money, to be able to step up in his life to some better future, he “buys” boys instead of working with another sailor who would be a partner or an employee.

This man rejected by everyone is also a pattern in Benjamin Britten’s operas and it is easy to relate this pattern to the personal life experience of the composer. We are of course not implying Benjamin Britten is projecting his personal life into his operas, hence his emotional and sentimental frustration in this society that rejects him, and Peter Pears at the same time, but we say Benjamin Britten has a direct and personal experience of this social rejection anyone can be the victim of for any reason at hand in the homogenized single collective mind of a crowd. Every single member of this crowd might be pretty nice in private but the crowd creates the lynching and pogromming monster in every single one of us when the opportunity is right in front of our door, but here it is not ethnic cleansing but social cleansing.

This double estrangement in this opera is fascinating. The boy is estranged from society by successive uprootings that lead him to death in a way or another, the first one at the beginning of thirst, and the second one at the end of a big fall, like Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. The man is estranged from the village and from society by his ambition that makes him appear as superior, ambition that will not be fulfilled, satisfied, realized. And the context itself is an estrangement for everyone or nearly: a sailor in his ship is alone and his home, as Peter Grimes says at the end before his own end, is “deep in the sea” and it is deep in the sea that he will end along with his ship, on the advice of the retired merchant skipper, Captain Balstrode. In other words the end is the reenactment of the walking of the plank of old shipping traditions: death penalty at sea.

All this makes this opera poignant and mind-raking. Is humanity that ugly?

But there is of course the music and that is of course a great if not the greatest element in the opera. The music never ceases, except one a capella duet, and is always dramatic in its movements up and down in the most logical and yet surprising ways, half a tone here and there turns minor the most logical major sentence, suspends it in thin air, in fear and awe. We cannot really know what is coming and the notes are thus separated one from the others as if the strings of notes were in fact successions of unlinked notes creating an effect of total outlandish isolation at times. This builds in the solos a strange feeling of distance, of something lurking in-between the notes, something menacing us constantly. That tone and atmosphere finds its acme with the choruses. The various chorus-singers sing together but most of the times along lines and patterns that are crisscrossing one another to give that impression of a hostile crowd no one can stop or dominate. There is one exception to that disorder. It is the early duet of Ellen Orford and Peter Grimes when they plan some kind of common future with the new child to come. It is sung for its major part a capella and the sentences are perfectly superimposed one onto the other with only the pronouns changing: a dual unison more than a duet, and yet a duet because we feel this unity is highly endangered. The contrast between this messy and meddling crowd as long as Peter Grimes is alive and the sudden total ignorance and forgetfulness once he is gone, meaning dead, is of course striking thanks to that use of the music to build a dangerous and menacing environment.


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