Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes – first performed in 1945 (Sadler’s Wells, London) – is an opera about an oddball misanthropic fisherman. On opening night, the audience were primed to engage with Britten’s anti-hero, never suspecting that a real-life hero would soon be needed. After an announcement before Act Two that Stuart Skelton, widely regarded as the world’s best in portraying the gruff Grimes, was indisposed and unable to continue to sing, the audience’s high expectations, generated by the cast and orchestra’s enormous volume and chiselled attack at the end of the first act, plummeted. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts saved the production by delivering an authentic, commendable performance as Grimes, from the side of the stage, as a silent Skelton enacted the part. Lloyd-Roberts also effectively navigated his own role as Reverend Horace Adams.
The harrowing storyline begins in court, where Fisherman Grimes is on trial for the death of his young apprentice. The tragedy is deemed an accident, and Grimes is acquitted. Despite this verdict, he continues to be shunned and shamed by the Borough community. When yet another young apprentice dies in a tragic fall, due to Grimes’s determination to battle treacherous weather and take his boat out to fish, Grimes is mercilessly persecuted by the mob. Hounded to the brink of madness, he sails out to sea and drowns himself. Conflict between an individual and a mob mentality is a recurring theme in Britten’s works. A pacifist and conscientious objector in World War II, he moved to the United States. After two years, he returned to England, only to endure domestic exile for some years.
As a composer, Britten chose to fashion works to suit particular artists. ‘You could say people are my note rows,’ he explained. Much of Britten’s vocal writing favours the tenor voice of Peter Pears, his long-standing partner. One of the latter’s idiosyncrasies was his special gift for singing the note E, which most tenors find daunting. The aria ‘The Great Bear and Pleiades’ begins on an E, which is generously reiterated in the opening phrases. It’s a tricky sing, and yet on Saturday (the second performance), a fully recovered Skelton wowed the crowd with his feathery light execution of the first phrase of this aria. His tone stretched and expanded and grew into a tremendous sound.