Britten’s national opera?

(Originally posted 2009)

I was reminded yesterday of an uncomfortable fact by a gushing review in the Guardian of a new ENO production .

I don’t like Peter Grimes.

This is close to heresy for a British musician, and I apologise for transgressing.

To be clear, I love the Four Sea Interludes, so it’s not the music that’s the problem. It’s the story. To understand Grimes it helps to grasp that Britten and Pears were interested in George Crabbe’s poem because its protagonist was an outsider in his community, The Borough, in much the same way as they felt themselves to be sexual outsiders in post-war Britain.

Early drafts of Montagu Slater’s libretto make it clear that Grimes is a violent monster, responsible by negligence at the very least for the deaths of the three apprentices under his charge.  But Britten changed the libretto as he went along to make Grimes a more ambiguous figure, so that we never know to what extent he is responsible for the first two deaths, and the third boy dies when scrambling down a cliff to Grimes’s boat.  The audience sees no violence (although Grimes does threaten the boy).

According to the Graun‘s review, in the new ENO production, the boy dies when Grimes, distracted by a vigilante crowd from The Borough, lets go of the rope holding him.  So here Grimes has tried to safeguard the boy, and The Borough is partly responsible for his death.

This just won’t do.  One reason I find sitting through the opera so tedious is that no-one in it is terribly sympathetic.  Grimes is horrible.  The Borough are all hypocrites.  The boy is a cipher (he doesn’t even sing).  Only Ellen Orford gets to sing two minutes of the most poignant music.  Now I accept that it may be too much to ask that all art depicting human relationships should have someone nice in it somewhere; but life is short, and three hours in the company of unpleasant people is not something you should have to pay for, however good the music.  Moreover, the opera portrays a whole society, and how many societies are entirely made up of the thoroughly disagreeable?

But it’s not just that.  The drama is fundamentally unbalanced.  We are asked to believe that Grimes is both a victim and a creation of The Borough, and that, according to the Graun‘s reviewer, they are “hypocritical . . . . a totally dysfunctional community, fuelled by religious bigotry . . . ”  Well perhaps, but even these are nicer people than Grimes.  Grimes is a twisted self-hating bully, whereas they are just hypocrites.  Who would you rather get stuck in a lift with?  Ah yes, reply Britten enthusiasts, but Grimes is twisted because the Borough hates him.  It’s all Society’s fault.  Well I don’t buy that.  Give me the Borough any day.

This curious moral blindness reminds me of something Frank Kermode once said.  He found that when teaching Camus’ The Outsider he was always amazed by how readily his students identified with the existentially tortured murderer; yet almost none of them were interested in the anonymous Arab victim.

Yes, it’s true: for artists, there’s no crime worse than provincial conservatism.


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