Is 'Grimes' great? the view from 1945 . . .

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The Independent Culture
Enthusiasm greeted Benjamin Britten's new opera - a queer affair (about) a sadistic young fisherman. Daily Herald

Odd that Britten . . . so astonishingly clever in his use of those musical devices that make for good theatrical effect, should yet have failed to perceive that his central figure was completely lacking in those qualities that arouse the tragic emotions, and especially pity. Madness may be a legitimate theme of tragedy, but it must be madness afflicting a noble mind. Spectator

It has no arias which errand boys will whistle. Daily Express

Much is left to the imagination; indeed some of the action is so confused and many of the words were so indistinguishable that it would have been difficult to follow satisfactorily the course of the work without the aid of a synopsis. Musical Opinion

. . . AND HOW IT LOOKS TODAY

PHILIP LANGRIDGE, Grimes at ENO since 1991

It is a great opera. Not great as a British opera: it is on a par with other great operas. It does happen to be 20th-century, but that does not mean it does not have any tunes. When opera was first invented in 1600 in Italy, it was a new form of music where words, drama and music were equal. Twentieth-century opera is exactly that: it is not only music.

Grimes's subject has become more universal. It could be Rwanda, or the Holocaust, or rape. Colour, religion, nationality, all come up and stare at me when I am performing it. In the Boar scene, Grimes wishes he could only turn the clock back and start again. That is exactly what the feeling must be in Rwanda.

LUCY BAILEY, opera director

It is great. It's about ordinary people and their tough working life, which is rare in opera. It gets to the heart of this, even though the language is crafted. So the opera plays on the social dilemma, but it also touches upon the psychology of man's isolation in the landscape. Britten has an almost Shakespearian recognition of the sea and man's relationship to it - Grimes's isolation in relation to the barren landscape of the Suffolk coast.

HUMPHREY CARPENTER, Britten's biographer

Britten's genius was to have a very stormy, pent-up emotional life and to be able to express it in his music. Grimes tells you all you need to know about his personality - the dark, nameless forces, certainly sexual, possibly sadistic, which made him feel a loner; and the desire to form a stable relationship which would help to keep the lid on those forces. In real life, Britten never had the nerve to walk out on the cosy twosome with Pears and to explore his own darkness. But the opera does it for him.

TREVOR NUNN, directing Glyndebourne 'Grimes'

It's a masterpiece in a naturalistic, English story-telling tradition. Musically, it sublimely evokes a place, the elements and the seasons. Precisely observed details of village ritual, work and characters reveal the tragic destruction of Grimes. The power of the opera proceeds from the particular to the universal, from the Suffolk coast to a landscape of great tragedy.

BAMBER GASCOIGNE, chmn, Friends of Covent Garden

Great is a very difficult word, but yes, I think it is. It leaves one with an incredibly strong emotional charge. And it introduces two important elements in Britten's own career - his very individual and atmospheric form of music, and his ability to bring a whole community to life.

ERIC CROZIER, producer of the original production

In early summer 1945, Sadler's Wells was coming back to life after six years of darkness and we were desperately busy with preparation for an opera people knew nothing about. Everybody in the audience had suffered, had lost relatives or friends or homes, and there, they watched what was at first an alien scene. Somehow Grimes's conflicts came to epitomise what we ourselves had endured in the long years since 1939. 'By the time you are done with this opera,' an American critic wrote, 'you have decided that Peter Grimes is the whole of the bombing, machine-gunning, mining, torpedoeing, ambushing humanity, which talks about a guaranteed standard of living yet does nothing but wreck its own works, degrade or pervert its own moral life and reduce itself to starvation . . .'

DONALD MITCHELL, Britten scholar

I'd prefer to think of Grimes as a great 20th-century opera; and there are not many of those. It strikes a high point in the so- called Mad Scene, that huge vocal cadenza for the deranged protagonist accompanied only by off-stage chorus and fog- horn. An astonishing idea, a terrific gamble, a knock-out of an achievement. However familiar the old piece becomes, inspiration like that never tires. Alas, Grimes has lost nothing of its topicality. Britten was prescient in writing about acts of violence all too like the horrors that engulf us today.

ANTHONY ROLFE JOHNSON, Grimes at Glyndebourne

Dramatically speaking, it is a tremendously accurate telling of the tale as set out by Slater, the librettist. The words are so well set and the tension is kept moving so that when singing it you have to remember to breathe.

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