Fissures of Men

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Fissures of Men

Royal Opera, 20th March 2022, Peter Grimes, opera in a prologue and three acts, music by Benjamin Britten, libretto by Montagu Slater, after the poem The Borough by George Crabbe, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, directed by Deborah Warner, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In an interview with opera critic Rupert Christiansen in 2019, Deborah Warner, director of this new production of Peter Grimes, observed that all of the Britten operas she has worked on are ‘deeply complex’ and ‘deeply spiritual too’ (‘Staging Britten’, Official Programme for Royal Opera’s 2019 production of Billy Budd). She considers the latter a Christian parable about ‘the power of love’ (caritas). Peter Grimes was premiered at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945, with tenor Peter Pears in the leading role. Montagu Slater’s libretto is eloquent, at times poetic, as in the beautifully orchestrated aria commencing “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades…”, and the equally moving passage, “What harbour shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms?”

A concomitant theme of the libretto is the hypocrisy of both organised religion and of the bourgeoisie. Mrs Sedley (Rosie Aldridge), rentier widow of an East India company factor and a laudanum addict, orchestrates the witch hunt against Grimes, and embodies both. As a homosexual and a pacifist, Britten would have been keenly aware of the intolerance of the mob. Only Ellen Orford, the Borough school mistress, played by Maria Bengtsson, really accepts Grimes, proclaiming “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. But their relationship founders when Grimes insists that his boy apprentice is ‘mine’ and as such can be subject to ‘unrelenting work’ and physical chastisement. According to Grimes, people only respect those with money.

In his insightful essay ‘Outcasts, Pariahs and Scapegoats’, Patrick McGuiness (Professor of French and Comparative Literature, Oxford) wonders why societies scapegoat the outsider (Official Programme, Royal Opera). He regards the Jungian concept of the shadow illuminating in this context, as “the scapegoat is really ourselves, the part of us we fear or repress”. Scapegoating is a means of “projecting collective guilt onto individual figures, and thus cleansing the group”. Fear also can drive group think and paranoia. In this instance, fear of the wind and the tide was pervasive in this impoverished fishing community. Perhaps there is still a need to placate such primal forces with a human sacrifice.

According to Allan Clayton, who excelled as Grimes, director Deborah Warner and set designer Michael Levine wanted to give the production a topical feel, with “nods to right-wing nationalism in the flags and the tattoos and certain newspapers’. Chavs, accordingly, abound. In similar vein, Clayton suggests that Grimes is not ‘mad’ but is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, following the death of his first apprentice. We have come a long way from Crabbe’s unforgiving characterisation of Grimes.

Almost all of the principal performances were compelling, notably Captain Balstrode, played by bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. The device of the Aerialist, representing the dead child, worked perfectly and conductor Sir Mark Elder made the most of Britten’s stirring score, notably in the Sea Interludes. For once, words like genius and masterpiece are not out of place.

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of Quarterly Review 

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