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The cruel story of a Suffolk fisherman accused of murdering his boy apprentices has gripped opera audiences for 50 years. Andrew Stewart looks at the social compassion, homesickness and white-hot creativity which led to the twentieth century’s most important British opera.
Fifty years after the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, it is easy to take the work’s international success for granted. But the decision to reopen Sadler’s Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945 with a new and ‘difficult’ work was not universally approved by members of the resident opera company, back in London after a depressing, energy-sapping period of wartime regional touring.
The bleak tale of narrow-minded Suffolk folk and a ‘sadistic fisherman’ hardly seemed suitable for the restoration of operatic life to the capital. But the company’s manager, Joan Cross, kept faith with Grimes, defending it against attack from a group of hostile singers, and was rewarded by the approval of critics and public alike.
Eric Crozier, who directed the work’s original production, recalled that ‘the title Peter Grimes was not an obviously attractive one; yet on the first night and at subsequent performances an atmosphere was engendered in that theatre which in my experience was unique.’ Almost overnight, Britten was recognised as the creator of an ‘English’ work fit to hold its place in the repertoire of the world’s leading opera houses.