Putting the cats out for the night

The composer hated the libretto, the chorus hated the music and the orchestra hated the conductor. Fifty years on, Andrew Green collects memories of the traumatic first night of Peter Grimes
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Fifty years to the day since it hosted the premiere of Peter Grimes, Sadler's Wells Theatre rings this evening not to the sound of Suffolk sea-swell but to Sri Lankan dance music. No sentiment on show there, but somewhere along a corridor the ghost of Tyrone Guthrie (the Wells administrator in 1945) will once more do the rounds before curtain-up.

Unaware of the spectacular success Britten's opera has since enjoyed, he will repeat his famous line to Joan Cross, the first Ellen Orford - "Whatever happens, we were right to do this piece." Such apprehension was endemic in the camp. On the evidence of the dress rehearsal, Britten himself believed "a disaster" was imminent.

One measure of the worth of Grimes, then, is that it took London by storm despite any shortcomings at the premiere itself. Lionel Salter, then a BBC producer, attended rehearsals and recalls the mutinous mood. "Chorus members were bitterly unhappy about the music's difficulty. One of them heard me humming 'Grimes is at his exercise' and muttered, 'Blimey... someone who knows it better than we do'."

Leonard Thompson who, at the age of 14, appeared as Grimes's apprentice, agrees that the singers would rather have tackled Verdi or Puccini to mark the re-opening of the bomb-damaged theatre. Yet he insists the disquiet "had most to do with the fact that Britten, Pears and Eric Crozier [the director] were conscientious objectors. People had lost relatives in the war, so 'conchies' were hardly popular."

Not to mention homosexuals. "Joan's Pansies" Britten and Pears were dubbed - after Joan Cross, the company's artistic director as well as its principal soprano, who had embraced Grimes as soon as she heard a run-through.

To be fair, the Sadler's Wells chorus had seen initial rehearsals crammed into an already busy touring schedule, while rumoured plans to subsume the company within a new Covent Garden outfit had bred fears about future job security. Grimes seemed no sort of banner to fight under. Crozier - who, like Cross, left the Wells in the wake of the Grimes premiere - reckoned the sparring "had the effect of dissipating the concentration needed for the study of a new score of great complexity".

Salter also recalls problems in the pit. Already a surprise choice as conductor in place of Wells music director Lawrance Collingwood, Reginald Goodall had, Salter suggests, limited authority with the baton. "He rather prided himself on a lack of technique; his beat was gauche and stiff; and he had so little experience in opera. Britten often stood behind him and I felt that was an additional inhibition."

But the conductor Sir Edward Downes, who at 19 (playing truant from the Royal College of Music) was fourth horn at the premiere, disagrees. "I'd been playing for Adrian Boult and Reggie's beat was a damn sight clearer than his!" As for questions over the quality of players available at the end of a long war, Downes points out: "You still knew there were six people waiting outside to take your place! The older hands were considerably bemused by the music at first, and we didn't make a glowing, glorious sound like the Berlin Philharmonic - but we could play all the notes."

Nor were the principals' dressing-rooms entirely free of nerves, even disregarding the grumbles about the allocation of roles and the fact that baritone Tom Williams jumped ship rather than conquer his part as Balstrode.

John Amis, a friend to Britten and Peter Pears, remembers that Pears was "worried that Grimes was too dramatic for his voice - he thought of himself as a lyric tenor best suited to Cosi fan tutte or The Bartered Bride."

Joan Cross, an uncanny vocal match to Pears, had the worst sort of preparation for the premiere, trying simultaneously to cope with her role as the company's artistic director. "I didn't have the time to devote to this piece," she admitted later. "I scrambled it into my brain somehow." Some said that showed.

Perhaps the most nagging irritant for Britten before and during the rehearsal period was coping with (and adapting) Montagu Slater's libretto. Slater's wife, Enid, may once have insisted that "there was never any trouble at all", but the evidence indicates Britten's continual frustration at Slater's high-flown, epigrammatic style. Slater also had problems keeping pace with Britten's speed of composition.

In later radio interviews both Crozier and Pears made clear how tough the process had been. "He wasn't the easiest person in the world to deal with in relation to the text that he'd drafted," was one clear understatement from Crozier. Slater had to be told "people are not going to understand what you mean. We must have something more direct, more simple." The fact that Slater had his original version of the libretto published says it all.

Through all of this Britten, one of life's dedicated worriers, seems to have maintained a public air of geniality. "He was upset at times, and cross... but never daunted," says Marion Thorpe, whose father, Erwin Stein, was Britten's contact at the publishers Boosey & Hawkes. "Problems simply had to be sorted out."

Recollections of the first night often contain an unlikely mix of euphoria at the arrival of the Great British Opera and echoes of the sometimes embarrassing inadequacies of the performance itself. John Amis recalls "ecstasy" but adds that many aspects of the evening were "fairly awful. I went to all eight performances and some things never improved". All remember the shambles of the tricky chorus "Old Joe has gone fishing". "I was waiting off-stage with Joan Cross for our cue," says Leonard Thompson. "She said, 'Oh dear! But come on, Leonard'."

Edward Downes diplomatically avoids a precise verdict on the orchestral playing. "It was an exciting performance, by which standard it was a good performance. You can have perfection which ends up as dull as ditchwater." He excuses the fact that the orchestra often drowned the singing. "Even the Chicago Symphony finds it tricky to play complex, unfamiliar music quietly until it's really familiar."

Acoustical problems stemmed in part from the size of the theatre, but there was an up-side to that, says the critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor. "Some moments were incredibly exciting simply because the sound overwhelmed you in such a small space. The great shouts of 'Peter Grimes!' in Act 3 cannoned around. I've never heard them more physically thrilling."

The acoustics worked both ways - literally. Such was the suspicion of Britten's opponents in musical London (John Amis recalls an amount of "Who does he think he is?" at the bar that night) that the intrusive sound of crockery clearance outside the auditorium was assumed by some, says Downes, to be sabotage. And so thunderous was the final ovation that some back-stage interpreted it as mass revulsion. "The stage staff thought it was some sort of riot," said Joan Cross.

To friend, foe or mild sceptic, the significance of Grimes was lost on no one. "I had dinner with Michael Tippett afterwards," John Amis recalls. "We slammed into it a bit - but still had been knocked absolutely sideways." Leonard Thompson quietly found his own way by tram back home to Lambeth: "I thought it had gone... very well." After a reception at the Savoy, Britten went home to St John's Wood. In the early hours he had to pour water over howling cats outside. Critics and cats silenced in quick succession. A decent night's work.

nRoyal Opera production, conducted by Arturo Tamayo, with Ben Heppner as Grimes, 7pm tonight on BBC Radio 3. City of London Festival concert performance, conducted by Richard Hickox, with Philip Langridge as Grimes, 20 June, Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171 638 8891)

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