OPERA / Laying the ghost of Peter: Peter Grimes made a star of Benjamin Britten in 1945 and lent a powerful new voice to the tenor. Mark Pappenheim talks to four singers who have taken the terrible and beautiful title role

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The premiere of Peter Grimes, just a month after the end of the last world war, instantly established Benjamin Britten as our first great opera composer since Purcell. Within three years, Grimes had been seen in 17 different opera houses around the world, from Brussels to Budapest, from Milan to the New York Met. For a modern opera, it was a success unimaginable today, all the more surprising given its unsavoury story of a sociopathic Suffolk fisherman, prone to visions and violence, who is eventually drummed out of the community and driven to madness and suicide after causing the deaths of two boy apprentices.

And indeed, while the opera's early critics were mostly agreed about the power of Britten's score, doubts were increasingly voiced about the ambivalent nature of the central character. Was he hero or villain, madman or murderer, poet or pariah? And could any other tenor ever hope to encompass all his aspects apart from Peter Pears, for whose particular sound and peculiar technique the role had been tailor-made?

Britten himself was perfectly aware of the vocal tightrope he was forcing tenors to tread. Writing in Opera magazine in April 1950, he defined the required timbre: neither too heavy, 'which makes the character simply a sadist', nor too lyric, 'which makes it a boring opera about a sentimental poet manque', but combining elements of both. Those comments followed a Canadian radio broadcast of the opera from the CBC studios in Toronto and that Commonwealth connection is being resumed next month. The Toronto-based heldentenor Ben Heppner will tackle the title role for the first time in two concert performances conducted by Britten's friend and collaborator, Mstislav Rostropovich, as the centrepiece of the LSO's month-long Barbican- based 'Festival of Britten'.

The casting of Heppner - a rising star of the Wagnerian repertory - in the Peter Pears part inevitably prompts memories of Britten's hostile reaction to the performance of another Canadian tenor, Jon Vickers, in Elijah Moshinsky's famously 'post-Brechtian' Covent Garden production of 1975. Vickers was an acclaimed Tristan, Otello and Florestan, with a beefy, heroic tone, a burnished top and a husky grain uniquely capable of injecting moral force into the few roles he could reconcile with his religious beliefs (he famously cancelled a Covent Garden Tannhauser, with its orgiastic celebrations on the Mount of Venus, after finding himself unable to rise to the occasion). But he could not have been further removed from the strangulated, nasal drawl (so wickedly sent up by Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe) into which the once liquid-voiced Pears had by then descended. Britten was so outraged by Vickers' performance that he stormed out.

The British tenor Robert Tear, who shared the title role with Vickers during the 1978 Covent Garden revival, has some sympathy with Britten's reaction. 'With Vickers,' he notes, 'you got a dying hero, a Tristan, rather than a visionary, Blakeian poet.' As a former Britten protege, who spent most of the Sixties understudying Pears's parts and creating several of his own, Tear probably understands the composer and his idiosyncratic writing for Pears's voice as well as anyone. And while, he admits, singing the music will always feel like 'trying to get somebody else's gloves on', he also suspects that it will always sound 'wrong-headed' if not sung in the Pears style.

As for the central character's contradictions, Tear admits, 'It's a messy piece to play, because there are so many bits to it. And every time you do it, you choose the bit that's you.' For himself, having experienced both Britten's charm and his cruelty - he was rejected after choosing to sing in the premiere of Tippett's The Knot Garden rather than in Britten's own Owen Wingrave - Grimes is simply a self-portrait of the composer, all the more telling because, he suspects, it was completely un-selfconscious - 'especially in the way he uses the other characters. As far as Ben could see the world, people were like that, just in the way.'

All you need to know to play Grimes, he suggests, is to know the composer - 'especially that simmering unease he always had, those amazing quick changes of temper. The character becomes much smaller that way - but much more dangerous.' And for him, he admits, it has always been 'a very evil-feeling opera' - a sensation only heightened by recent revelations about Britten's various attachments to young boys. 'I keep coming back to the intrinsic evil of it - this thing not quite touched upon, never talked about, yet always there.' For Vickers, by contrast, Grimes was nearer to God than the Devil. 'I remember once, in Paris,' Tear recalls, 'he just came before the chorus and said, 'Peter Grimes is Jesus Christ.' That was it, for him. And they all just shrugged, in a typically French way.'

For Philip Langridge, who took over the title role from Vickers and Tear at Covent Garden in 1989 and later starred in Tim Albery's 1991 production for ENO, the shadow of Britten and Pears is less oppressive. 'Yes, Britten did write it for Pears, but that's not to say it's the only voice that can sing it. You have to be faithful to the markings, of course, but do it your own way.' As he says, interpretatively speaking, Britten's operas are now in the public domain as much as those of Monteverdi or Mozart. 'They've all had a taste of 'modern-type' productions. Why not? I don't see that we have to perform a work as the composer wanted.'

When it comes to Grimes's psychology, Langridge is more for sidestepping the contradictions than confronting them. Noting that the character is as often off stage as on, he tries to take each scene as it comes, 'playing it raw, without necessarily thinking about what he will do on his next appearance.' It may sound ad hoc, but adds up, he believes, to more than might at first appear. 'Of course, he flies apart at the end. But if you put the last scene with the first, you can sort of see it coming, can't you?'

Given his slighter frame, Langridge tends to play down the violence in comparison with the more bullish Vickers - 'but then, we're talking about beating boys about, not grown men.' Yet he admits that he particularly liked the way Tim Albery, at ENO, had Grimes carry the boy's body off after his fatal fall from the cliff. 'That did show some compassion,' he observes. 'He's not cruel, he's just so bound up with himself. If only he could just control his temper, he'd be all right.' But whether an audience should sympathise with Grimes or not is, he suggests, up to them. 'He's not a sympathetic character, I agree, but he has my sympathy, let's put it that way. He's just doing what he believes in, and there are few people today who can say that.'

For Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, who has just recorded the role for EMI and will be singing it on stage for the first time next year in Glasgow, Glyndebourne and New York, Grimes has the makings of a true tragic hero. 'I think he's a dangerous, violent, quixotic and very valuable person for whom things go wrong - and they were never going to go right. But I don't think he is unkind. The challenge is to make the character valuable enough for it to feel like a tragedy when it all goes wrong. The audience has to feel a great loss: there but for the grace of God . . .'

In going for an overtly Italianate approach, he is diverging more widely from the Pears model than most British singers would dare. 'But Peter and I rest easy,' he remarks. 'If I'm in anyone's shadow, it's Vickers' rather than Pears'.'

That's a comment that Ben Heppner might well echo, although not so warmly. Only four years into a burgeoning international career, he is already weary of being hailed as 'the next Jon Vickers'. 'The fact is,' he insists, 'our voices are miles apart and we have few cross-over roles. It just comes of being Canadian and having the name helden attached to our repertoire lists.' For him, the difficulties are more dramatic than vocal - 'although there are certain moments you have to say that only Pears could do without hurting himself. But overall the emotional part of Grimes provides the most dangerous side of singing it. I find the mad scene completely draining - it has so many varied emotions and so much of it is unaccompanied, so you're pouring out this terrible intensity of feeling while also trying to take care of tonality and pitch.' Doing his first Grimes in London does, he admits, display 'more courage than brains' (even Vickers broke it in at the Met first), yet he has no worries about trespassing on native territory. 'You do a great disservice to both Britten and Britain to see it as only an English work. This is a work of enormous stature. It transcends its Englishness.'

Festival of Britten: Barbican (071-638 8891) to 21 Mar; 'Peter Grimes' 14, 17 Mar

(Photographs omitted)