Finding Home, Away From Home In April 1939, with fascism casting a long shadow over Europe, English composer Benjamin Britten relocated to America. While working in California, he discovered the poetry of George Crabbe, an English writer from the late 1700s. Crabbe’s bracingly realistic depictions of village life in Suffolk filled Britten with nostalgia and homesickness. And the story of a cruel Aldeburgh fisherman, included in Crabbe’s 1810 collection, The Borough, gave Britten the seed of his first full-scale opera. In reading Crabbe, Britten noted, “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked.” A year later, he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, sailed home for England.
Canadian superstar tenor Ben Heppner returns to the COC as Peter Grimes, one of his signature roles.
The Outsider Crabbe portrayed Grimes as an abusive sadist, unmistakably at fault for the deaths of his boy apprentices. Yet Britten’s opera reinterprets the character radically, makes him more sympathetic and renders his culpability a question up for debate. While he is still flawed and violent, in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes is also a dreamer: a lonely and poetic soul, victimized by an intolerant community. In Act I, scene i, Peter Grimes sings the arioso, “What harbour shelters peace?” which includes the opera’s most famous leitmotif (recurring musical theme): an interval between two notes (technically, a “rising 9th”) whose very sound contains a hopeful, yet haunted quality. At this moment, the interval serves to communicate Grimes’s fleeting desire to integrate into his community by marrying Ellen Orford. By the time it returns at the opera’s conclusion, it has lost any connection to real life happiness. Grimes has lost his mind and intones the interval in a vain attempt to recall earlier “happier” times.
We’ve prepared musical excerpts for you to enjoy. When you see the headphone symbol, head over to coc.ca/COCRadio and listen along.