Relentless Tides, in Britten's 'Peter Grimes"

The opera has three acts, and opens with a PROLOGUE. It takes place in the Borough's Moot Hall, where a coroner's inquest is taking place. Peter Grimes is being questioned, after the mysterious death of his young apprentice. Mr. Swallow, a lawyer, serves as the town's coroner, and grills Peter about what happened. Grimes tells him their boat was blown off course. It took them several days to get home, and the boy died when they ran out of drinking water. The coroner rules it an accidental death, but some of the villagers are suspicious, and even consider Grimes a murderer.

One person who seems to accept Peter's version of events is Ellen Orford. She's a widow, and the local schoolmistress. Ellen and Grimes have become close. She thinks they should leave the Borough, to escape the local gossip, but Grimes is defiant. He's determined to be successful -- and respected -- right where he is.

ACT ONE begins with the first of the opera's several well-known orchestral interludes, called "Dawn." The first scene is on the village's main street, where we meet the sometimes hypocritical local characters. There's Bob Boles -- a religious fanatic who's also a bit of a drunk. There's a prim widow, Mrs. Sedley, who has a well-earned reputation as a gossip and busybody. We also meet the landlady of the Boar Pub, known to everyone as Auntie -- along with two young women who work for her, entertaining the Pub's guests. The two are known, with a wink and a nod, as Auntie's "nieces." And there's Captain Balstrode, the retired skipper of a merchant vessel. He warns of an approaching storm.

Peter Grimes returns from the sea and needs help pulling his boat on shore. Most of the villagers distrust him, and the only ones willing to assist are Balstrode and Ned Keene, the local druggist.

Keene tells Grimes that he's found him a new apprentice -- a boy taken, for a price, from the workhouse. Keene wants a man named Hobson to fetch the boy. Hobson is a sort of courier, who uses his cart to make runs from village to village, delivering trade goods. Hobson at first refuses, but then relents when Ellen agrees to go along and look after the boy. The villagers warn her that if things go wrong, she'll be partly to blame. She tells them to mind their own business.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Sedley asks the druggist Keene if he has her supply of laudanum -- an addictive sedative. He says no; Hobson will bring it when he returns. Keene tells Mrs. Sedley to meet him that night in the Boar. She doesn't approve of the pub, but she wants that laudanum, so she agrees.

With Hobson and Ellen gone, Balstrode tells Grimes that Ellen is right -- they should leave the Borough and try to salvage Peter's reputation. Again, Grimes says no. He has to stay, and earn enough money to marry Ellen and buy her a house. Balstrode tells Peter he should propose to Ellen right away, saying, "She'll have you now." But Grimes says that she'd only be accepting him out of pity.

Before the next scene, we hear the famous "Storm Interlude." Afterwards, people are huddling in the Boar Pub for shelter from the weather. Mrs. Sedley is waiting for her laudanum. The nieces make a show of being afraid, and look for comfort among the customers.

Finally, Hobson and Ellen return with the new apprentice. All three are drenched from the rain, and the wind is still howling. But despite the dangerous weather, Grimes is anxious to take the boy home so they can get to work. The two go out, into the storm, while the villagers make fun of Peter's modest hut, saying, "You call that home?"

ACT TWO opens with another of the opera's well-known orchestral interludes. It seems to evoke bright sunlight on the ocean, and vessels sailing briskly through the waves. The interlude is called "Sunday Morning," and that's when the act begins.

Ellen Orford, one of the few in town who still supports Grimes, has Peter's new apprentice with her. They're outside the church, where there's a service in progress, and Ellen is worried. The boy has a fresh rip in his coat, and an ugly bruise on his neck.

Grimes appears, and wants to take the boy out on the water, where he's seen a shoal of fish. Ellen reminds Peter that he promised to give the boy Sundays off. Grimes says they need to work, to make money to buy Ellen a home, and earn some respect for Grimes. Ellen mentions the boy's bruise, and her fear that their plan for a new start has failed -- saying maybe it was all a mistake. Hearing that, Peter strikes her, and drags the boy away. People leaving the church have seen it all, and disparage Peter, saying, "Grimes is at his exercise."

The crowd then sets on Ellen, accusing her of aiding Grimes in abusing the apprentice. She says she only wanted to help the boy, and Captain Balstrode tries to defend her. But the crowd's anger is up. Eventually, the Rector decides to take some men and confront Grimes at his hut. He wants Balstrode to come along, and the Captain reluctantly agrees.

The women stay behind. Auntie, the landlady of the local pub, is with her two bar girls -- the "nieces." Together, in one of the opera's most beautiful numbers, they reflect on the lives of women in the village, and their role of "comforting" the men. They sing, "Do we smile, or do we weep? Or wait quietly till they sleep?"

Another orchestral interlude introduces the next scene, which takes place in Peter's hut. It has two doors. One opens onto a path, out front. The rear door opens near a steep precipice, leading down to the sea, where the boat is kept.

Grimes comes in, leading the boy. He orders him to get out of his fancy Sunday clothes and put on his fishing gear -- including a jersey on which Ellen has embroidered an anchor. In a long monologue, Grimes rails against the self-righteous villagers and their vicious gossip. He says the only thing they listen to is money, and he's determined to work until he makes enough to force their respect. As he finishes, he looks at the boy, and imagines he's seeing his last apprentice -- the one who died at sea, on what Peter calls, "that evil day."

Then the Rector and Balstrode are heard outside, with the men from the village. In a near panic, Grimes orders the boy to gather the fishing gear, then rushes him out the back door to the precipice. He's about to go through the door himself when the boy stumbles, then screams and disappears. Grimes quickly goes down after him.

When the men arrive, the Rector looks around, along with the druggist Ned, and Swallow, the lawyer. All they see is a modest, neatly kept hut. Everything seems to be in order, they say. Perhaps Grimes and the boy have gone fishing. Seeing no reason for concern, they leave. All except Captain Balstrod. Alone, he goes out the back door. As the act ends, Balstrode begins climbing down the cliff, toward the sea.

ACT THREE begins with an evocative orchestral interlude called "Moonlight." It seems to suggest a quiet night, but also turns edgy, perhaps to reflect the troubled state of Peter's mind.

The first scene takes place outside the Boar, where people are saying goodnight and heading home. They're concerned about Peter's apprentice. Neither Grimes nor the boy has been seen since the day before -- and some suspect the worst. The nosy Mrs. Sedley speaks of "murder most foul."

When everyone else has retired, Ellen Orford speaks with Captain Balstrode. He tells her that Peter's boat is back ashore, but Grimes himself has disappeared -- along with the apprentice. Ellen calls Orford close, and quietly shows him a jersey. It belonged to the boy. Ellen had embroidered the anchor on its chest, and she found it near the water. She calls the jersey, "the clue whose meaning we avoid."

Balstrode says they should look for Grimes. When Ellen replies that there's nothing they can do to help him, Balstrode says that "when your friend suffers torment, we cannot turn our backs." Then they both agree that, "we shall be there with him."

All the while, Mrs. Sedley has been watching from a distance. She goes to the door of the pub, and reports to Swallow, the lawyer, that Grimes has returned. Swallow summons Hobson, who serves as the village constable, and they agree to gather a posse, to return to Peter's hut. As they leave, the villagers sing, "Our curse shall fall upon his evil day."