Work of the Week 38. Peter GrimesStories
Presented by tenor Stuart Skelton
The opera that is most associated with Britten’s home county of Suffolk was in fact conceived in the USA. Britten was nearing the end of his 3-year residency in America and staying with friends in California. While browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Los Angeles, he found a volume of poetry by the Suffolk writer George Crabbe; and had recently read an article about him by EM Forster. Already feeling homesick, this encounter with poetry that evoked the wild, woolly landscape of East Anglia sealed the deal and Britten and Pears began to make plans to return. Equally importantly, they began to plot an opera based on Crabbe’s The Borough. The early scenarios for Grimes were written on the crossing back to the UK as early as April 1942, and Britten composed the music from 1944-1945 while living at the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk. During its first run, at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945, the opera was a huge commercial and critical success. Peter Pears, having had much work in opera companies since his return from the USA, took the starring role.
In this week’s specially extended film Stuart Skelton describes Peter Grimes as ‘probably the greatest twentieth-century opera’ (with Berg’s Lulu a close second!). He is particularly struck by how confident and powerful the work is given Britten’s relative youth and lack of much operatic experience at the time. Discussing the complex, primal character of the opera’s titular character, Stuart remarks that while the character of Peter ‘leaves bruises’ on his performers, it is always worth it. We are delighted to be able to include a clip of Stuart singing the aria ‘The Great Bear and Pleiades’, with Richard Peirson on the piano. Our grateful thanks to English National Opera for allowing us to include this.
We are very grateful to the current owners of the Old Mill, Snape for letting us film at their home.