I cannot internalize Peter Grimes. I don't know if he's a sociopath
who thinks only of himself, or is a crusty loner beset by bad luck and
driven to madness by the unforgiving burghers of his village. I can
make it play either way in my head. The story opens when he makes an
exceptionally large catch, and decides it is too big for the local market,
and heads for London. He runs into adverse winds, and is held at sea
for three days, without water. His apprentice boy dies. He is held
legally innocent, but the villagers are not so sure. He says fishing
is impossible without help, and gets a new apprentice from the workhouse,
paying a fee for the reference. (The chorus asks "Is this a Christian
nation, when you can buy a child?") The villagers suspect (not without
cause) that he is being cruel to the new apprentice. They storm up to
Peter's hut on the cliff to investigate. Peter intends to give them
the slip by taking to his boat and going fishing. But the apprentice
slips and falls on the way down. When his jersey washes up on the beach,
the last two people in the village who believe in him, the widowed school
teacher (whom he dreams of asking to marry him, were he richer) and
a respected older captain, lose faith and reject him. He takes his
boat to sea, scuttles it, and, presumably, drowns.
Britten's music is interesting. Especially in the first act, the music
tends to embody a cosmic quality, contrasting with the rather quotidian
people and activities portrayed. I am called to remember Melvile's
quote as he was writing "Mobey Dick" - "Give me to write a condor's
quill, and give me Vesuvius for an ink well." Britten is investing
a believable incident with the onus of representing right and wrong
for all humanity.
But, as I said, I am left unsure of what lesson I have been taught.
Is it of the destructive effects of small town social pressure on those
who do not quite fit the mold? Or is it about a monster colliding with
a small and conventional, but mostly beneficent, social order.