Opera Daily 🎶 — Peter Grimes
This week's Opera Daily features the English opera Peter Grimes by the contemporary British composer Benjamin Britten
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Peter Grimes by the contemporary British composer Benjamin Britten is currently at The Met, and I thought it would be interesting to revisit the opera. There is no sure answer as to why Peter Grimes is so popular. Some people believe that the opera’s popularity is due to its complex and suggestive storyline, while others believe that it is the result of Britten’s masterful composition.
Regardless of what you believe the reason is, there is no denying that the “Embroidery Aria” for soprano from Act 3 is one of the most beautiful moments in the opera.
Peter Grimes is about a small fishing community on the East Coast of England. Peter Grimes (the title role sung by a tenor) is a fisherman, but the locals in the village see him as an outsider and don’t trust him. Renée Fleming is singing the role of Ellen Orford here, along with an excerpt of Nicole Car singing the same aria during a rehearsal from The Met this season.
This aria is a perfect example of word painting (a musical technique Britten used in his compositions that reflects the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics). Like embroidery work, the meandering tune you hear Renée (and Nicole) singing will feel like a needle and thread in motion.
🎧 Listening Example (6 minute listen): Renée Fleming singing “Embroidery Aria”, Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, 1997
🎧 Listening Example (1 minute listen): Soprano Nicole Car singing an excerpt from Ellen Orford’s Act 3 aria, “Embroidery Aria” in an early dress rehearsal of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Nicholas Carter, conductor
On June 7th, 1945, Peter Grimes premiered at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and is one of the greatest English operas of the 20th century.
The opera is set in a fictional village which is loosely based on Britten’s home town of Aldeburgh, a Suffolk seaside town. It is based on the narrative poem “Peter Grimes”, in George Crabbe’s book The Borough. Crabbe was also a native of Aldeburgh.
Peter Grimes is on trial in his village for the mysterious death of his apprentice. He is found not guilty but socially excluded by the villagers, except for a school teacher, Ellen Orford. Against the village’s advice, Peter Grimes takes on a new apprentice who accidentally falls over the edge of a cliff.
This aria above happens after Ellen finds the outfit she made for Peter’s apprentice washed up onshore. She knows what this means—that the boy is dead and the community will blame Peter for it. Ellen infers that the boy has died by singing, “Now my embroidery affords the clue, whose meaning we avoid.”
“(Peter Grimes) is very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” — Benjamin Britten
Britten’s music is modern, often dissonant sounding but always filled with beautiful melodies. Britten started composing as a child, and by 18, he’d written more than 700 pieces.
Many tenors have sung the title role in Peter Grimes, but Peter Pears and Jon Vickers are the most well-known for this incredibly complex character.
Tenor Peter Pears performed in the premiere in 1945. Below is the BBC telecast from 1969 of Peter Grimes with Peter Pears and the original Ellen Orford (Heather Harper) with Benjamin Britten conducting.
Thank you for reading (and listening), and feel free to reply with feedback or leave a comment.
PS. If you missed last week’s selection, we talked about why opera is a team sport, and we featured The Barber of Seville
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