Magazine article The New Yorker

Murder Will out; Musical Events

Magazine article The New Yorker

Murder Will out; Musical Events

Article excerpt

Maybe there is a saving grace in the fact that New York gets to hear "Peter Grimes" so seldom--every five years, on average. Benjamin Britten's beautiful and terrifying masterpiece, the tale of an antisocial East Anglian fisherman whose apprentices have a habit of dying on the job, has not yet lost its capacity to surprise; it clobbers us anew with each revival. "Grimes" ranks high among operas of the past century, not only because the music is so fiendishly good but because the music and the words together propel a debate that never stops raging. You are drawn into the melee from the moment the curtain rises, and leave feeling exhilarated, even though the journey is as dark as theatre gets.

Why the opera has never caught on at the Met is a puzzle. The house last presented it in 1998, and no revival seems imminent. Last week, "Grimes" fans gratefully turned to the London Symphony Orchestra, which presented a concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall. Under the direction of Colin Davis, the L.S.O. has made a habit of descending on New York in the middle of winter and electroshocking the city out of its seasonal affective disorder with galvanic programs of works both familiar and unexpected. The orchestra is a venerable one, celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year, but it plays with the kind of isn't-music-amazing enthusiasm that you usually hear only in student ensembles. Where the extra edge comes from is anyone's guess. Reading Richard Morrison's new history of the L.S.O., I got the sense that the orchestra's diverse activities in music education, film-score recording, and crossover projects have made its "classical" playing less routine. In any case, it seems fitting that this ever youthful group should mark its centenary not by putting on a pompous gala but by unleashing "Grimes," the Hound of the Baskervilles of the operatic repertory.

There are essentially two schools of thought on "Grimes." One is the outcast-persecuted-by-society, or Popular Front, reading, to which the composer and the librettist both subscribed. According to this view, Grimes is a difficult, unlikable man--a rageaholic, let's say--but he is not to blame for the deaths of his two apprentices, the first of whom drowns before the opera begins and the second of whom falls off a cliff in Act II. The fisherman is the victim of a lynch mob; the villagers expiate their own sins by making him their scapegoat. Mrs. Sedley, the opium-addicted busybody who accuses Grimes of murder, is a diseased Miss Marple who has been searching all her life for a crime equal to her hallucinations. The attack on Grimes can be seen as an allegory of the persecution of homosexuals and pacifists (Britten was both) or of Communists (Montagu Slater, the librettist, was one). Indeed, the villagers often chatter viciously among themselves like an Un-Anglian Activities Committee: "Him who despises us / we'll destroy!"

Then, there is George Crabbe's poem "Peter Grimes," which inspired the opera. Crabbe was born in 1754 in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, where the story is set and where Britten wrote most of the score. The poet heard tell of a cruel fisherman who was thought to have caused the deaths of several boys, and from that rumor he wove the character of Grimes. He created a horrible but compelling brute whose soliloquies sometimes rise to Shakespearean grandeur. The abuse of the boys is not only physical but possibly also sexual: "Strange that a frame so weak could bear so long / The grossest insult and the foulest wrong." The villagers' only crime is that they fail to notice what is going on. Britten had originally intended to make a faithful adaptation of this ghastly material; his early sketches, which can be seen in the Britten archive in Aldeburgh, repeatedly refer to the deaths of the boys as "murders." It was Slater who pulled the opera in the direction of social allegory. Britten himself softened the character at the last minute, perhaps fearing a scandal. …

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