Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaA rehearsal of Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera in February 2008

“Who holds himself apart/Lets his pride rise./Him who despises us/We’ll destroy.” This ominous warning is sung by the townfolk of the Borough, a scruffy, storm-battered enclave on the North Sea, as they form a posse to hunt down Peter Grimes, the title character of Benjamin Britten’s opera. Grimes is a subsistence fisherman, and although a local court has recently attributed the death of his young apprentice to accidental circumstances, the town thinks otherwise. They know Grimes as a loner, a troubled soul given to fiery visions and fits of rage. His only ally is a widowed schoolteacher, Ellen Orford; following the verdict, together they hope to rebuild Grimes’s life and reputation. When Ellen finds evidence that Grimes is treating a new apprentice roughly, and Grimes strikes her, the posse comes together seeking speedy justice; when a second apprentice falls to his death, Grimes, disoriented and barely coherent, seems to accept the town’s guilty verdict, sailing out to sea and sinking his boat.

Peter Grimes premiered in London at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on June 7, 1945, just weeks after the surrender of Nazi Germany. For the previous six years, newsreels had portrayed the war as an unambiguous struggle of good against evil, yet more complex views had appeared even before the war ended and postwar anxiety and disillusionment set in. On Broadway, the malevolent farmhand Jud Fry and the tormented wife-beater Billy Bigelow darkened the customary razzle-dazzle of musical comedy, and Nellie Forbush (currently washing her hair in a revival of South Pacific) recognized that her cockeyed optimism concealed a deeply ingrained, carefully instilled racism. On the screen as well, the capacity for racism, intolerance and brutality was not limited to the Axis foe. Harry Lime scurried out of an underworld of venal motives and casual violence like a sewer rat. In reel after reel of film noir, gangsters on the home front acted like Nazi gauleiters building fiefdoms with omnipresent, unrestrained terror. As Philip Roth reminded us in The Plot Against America (2004), it was the home front’s cult of nationalistic spirit and self-sacrifice, not the prospect of military defeat, that aroused fears of a Nazified America. It could happen here.

Along with Britten’s Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954), Peter Grimes can be considered opera noir, the musical equivalent of The Big Heat or Touch of Evil. John Doyle, director of the recent Metropolitan Opera production of Peter Grimes, is best known for his staging of Sweeney Todd in 2005, an apt springboard for reconceiving Britten’s more profoundly grim masterpiece. Doyle set Stephen Sondheim’s penny dreadful shocker “in a bleak wooden box of a room that suggests an underfinanced psych ward in limbo,” as Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. For the staging of Peter Grimes, widely seen on HD simulcast at movie theaters and later replayed on public television, Doyle similarly replaced the picturesque seaside realism of recent productions with literal, full-frontal noir. The set (designed by Scott Pask) consisted of a towering yet mobile black wall that at times pressed the performers right up against the edge of the stage, on the verge of an orchestra heaving and boiling with the sounds of oceanic catastrophe.

Since Peter Grimes has often been interpreted, most recently by The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, as an essentially scenic opera of place, Doyle’s claustrophobic, anti-atmospheric approach was not just a novelty but a radical reinterpretation that made the opera at once more internal and universal, less of its place but also more of its time, and ours. The oppressive wall, though it probably seemed more frightening at the movies than in the opera house, was worthy of David Lean or Fritz Lang, yet the noiring of Grimes also shadowed the current mood. As the nation slouches toward a looming postwar assessment of its moral integrity, film noir has been reborn, but even darker and bleaker, with No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and the filmed Sweeney Todd. Britten’s reblackened tragedy fits right into that scary company.

Peter Grimes is based loosely on the poem The Borough, written by George Crabbe around 1810. Britten learned of it from an article about Crabbe written by E.M. Forster for The Listener in 1941, when Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, were still living in the United States. Britten and Pears were pacifists, and like their friend W.H. Auden, with whom they wrote the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, they had left Britain for the United States after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. The Borough described by Crabbe was the seaside village of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, just south of Britten’s birthplace in Lowestoft. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the squalid, isolated fishing hamlet of Crabbe’s day had become the cheery seaside resort and golf course found in Britten’s chamber opera Albert Herring (1947). Today it is a major music world destination, site of the Britten-Pears school of music and the Aldeburgh Festival.

Crabbe’s Grimes is a monster, a fisherman who dies haunted by the vision of his brutal father and the apprentices he has murdered. Thinking of their own situation as exiles, homosexuals and pacifists, Britten and Pears decided to tweak the story, making Grimes the victim of the villagers’ irrational prejudice and their suspicions about his role in the apprentices’ deaths. Such a radical adaptation of The Borough created complications in the tale’s plot. If Grimes was shown as a victim, who would be guilty of the apprentices’ deaths? Here Montagu Slater entered the picture as librettist. A Communist who had worked with Britten in the ’30s, he introduced a Dickensian note of social criticism into the libretto, calling attention to the horrors of the workhouse where the apprentices had been starved before Grimes came anywhere near them.

Somewhere in this process, however, a crucial, clarifying decision was made. The libretto eliminated most of Crabbe’s backstory about Grimes and dropped the attempts at revised character inflections sketched by Britten and Pears, some of which implied sexual feeling by Grimes toward the apprentices. (The late musicologist Philip Brett attributed the change exclusively to a strong-willed Britten and his desire to give the opera a universal significance not tied to a particular place or a narrowly constructed motivation.) In the opera there is no mention of Grimes’s abusive father; hardly any details about the ordeals of Ellen Orford’s previous life (marital and extramarital abuse); only small evidence of Grimes’s visions of “the clouds of human grief”; just the vaguest sense of what plans, either ameliorative or romantic, Peter and Ellen may have had before the action begins; and no overt suggestions of homoerotic feeling. Systematic explanation yielded to mystery. The black wall was in place well before the new Met production.

Full of deliberate miscues and critical mousetraps, Peter Grimes unspools a series of deceptions that divest listeners of moral clarity. The opening trial scene kicks things off with a reassuring, bustling neoclassical groove that mimics the smug self-confidence of village justice while efficiently introducing the audience to the main characters. Britten identifies Grimes musically with two simple devices: he sings at half the speed of other characters and seems to have a leitmotif of his own, a lumbering five-beat stammer. The music seems to suggest: he’s different, so they hate him. Some critics have taken the measured tempo of Grimes’s lines as proof of his innocence, apparently having forgotten a basic principle of opera hermeneutics: the music may just reflect a character’s sense of himself. (In Madame Butterfly, the evil Pinkerton sings beautiful music because he thinks he is good.) But Grimes’s leitmotif never recurs; the brooding, off-kilter music was a hint of his troubled soul. (The Met’s Anthony Dean Griffey sang the role with a full-bodied lyricism, but his face, as if mirroring the wall, remained an inscrutable mask throughout the opera.) The trial scene ends in disarray. The court’s speedy ruling of “accidental circumstances” persuades no one, and several of the named characters play no further role in the action–it’s a mock trial in a Potemkin village.

What follows is deceptive on a much grander scale. I would term the opera’s three acts Romance, Tragedy and Travesty; the second and third invert and undo the premises of the action that preceded them. In the prologue and first act we seem to be watching an updated version of The Flying Dutchman, with Grimes as the cursed Dutchman and Ellen Orford as the redemptive Senta. Two big musical numbers support the role of Ellen as Peter’s angel: their duet right after the opening trial scene, and Ellen’s defense of Peter against the town gossips in the imposing aria “Let her among you without fault cast the first stone.” Ellen, quoting freely and inaccurately from the Bible, vows to shelter Peter from the town’s venal suspicions. And he seems to be a worthy object of her sympathies. During the trial he is mostly coherent and makes a sane appraisal of his prospects. When he tells his story to the sympathetic Balstrode, a retired sea captain, in the aria “We strained into the wind,” he comes across as an innocent victim of circumstances. But then he snaps, suddenly singing at a breathless pace of how he will buy the town’s respect by fishing the sea dry and marrying Ellen. It is the first hint that their alliance is no redemptive romance but a folie à deux, his fantasy of gaining respectability a counterpoint to her delusions of being able to rehabilitate his character.

Yet the air of old-fashioned grand opera romanticism, with its promise of transcendence, clings to the music. After Ellen’s self-righteous exit with the carter to fetch a new apprentice for Grimes, a storm kicks up from the orchestra pit and the townspeople greet it with a choral fugue they seem to keep on hand for such occasions, like an umbrella. At the height of the storm, Peter bursts into Auntie’s pub for his first mad scene, the spooky aria “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades,” which is the only evidence that he is a visionary poet, not just a public menace. But this aria too is deceptive, playing on the romantic convention of madness seizing only the great ones. It’s as if the audience is being asked to put up with Peter because beneath it all he’s really William Blake.

The second act is the dramatic core of the opera, but its first scene is such an extravagant display of compositional virtuosity that it may have appeared that Britten was just showcasing his technical skill. Britten juxtaposes two scenes: while the Borough is in church, Ellen and the new apprentice, and then Grimes, appear outside, by the beach. The church service and the mounting tensions of the outdoor scene are closely coordinated; when Ellen, noticing a tear in the boy’s jacket, asks him, “John, what/Are you trying to hide?” the worshipers sing, “O Lord, open Thou our lips.”

The scene upends our sense of both characters. As she interrogates the silent apprentice, Ellen reveals herself to be a menace in her own right; one wonders whether her schoolroom is any less lethal for the young and vulnerable than Grimes’s boat. (Patricia Racette, in a beautifully nuanced performance, seemed to age before our eyes, but I would have liked to see her interpret the role by balancing self-righteousness with spunk–after all, Ellen does oppose the whole town, at least for a while.) In her plan to rehabilitate Grimes, Ellen implicates herself in the abuses of the workhouse, as the town’s Methodist preacher points out, but she also seems to be sacrificing the boy to her own shadowy designs. When she discovers the boy’s bruises, her response (“Well, it’s begun”) shows that she is as convinced of Grimes’s guilt as are the town gossips. But then she makes matters worse by telling the boy, “Child, you’re not too young to know/Where roots of sorrow are/Innocent you’ve learned how near/Life is to torture.” No wonder the boy is speechless. Ellen, the audience learns, is a boy-destroying mother figure, a type Britten resurrected with the Governess in The Turn of the Screw and Albert Herring‘s repressive trinity of Lady Billows, Miss Wordsworth and Mrs. Herring, who have conspired to emasculate poor Albert, the original 40-year-old virgin. (I realized that Albert Herring is Peter Grimes rewritten as an Ealing comedy when I chuckled my way through a wonderful production of Britten’s lone comedy at the Portland Opera the night before I saw Peter Grimes at the movies.)

Grimes reacts to Ellen’s questions about the apprentice’s bruises by striking her, his hand channeling the boy’s rage as well as his own. The romance, such as it was, is over, and the tragic forces behind the action are now unleashed. It will be the mob against the Other, male against female, eros against civilization. Here Britten’s virtuosity lifts the opera to the level of late Verdi: first a huge ensemble focuses the Borough’s accusations against Grimes, turning gossip into a pogrom fueled by a relentless drum cadence. As the men depart to hunt Grimes, Ellen joins the village publican, Auntie and her two so-called nieces in song. In this, the opera’s most beautiful moment, Ellen lets go of her hopes and her snobbery; no longer a schoolmarm, she joins ranks with the femmes fatales.

And then comes the tragic action of the opera–an orchestral interlude, curtain down. In early sketches Britten referred to this interlude as “The Boy’s Suffering,” but in the score it is just called “Passacaglia.” However titled, the interlude is a musical Calvary. A passacaglia is usually a slow, relentless saraband built on a repeated bass line. A common structure in seventeenth-century opera, it was used by Bach in the B-minor Mass and Cantata 78 to depict the Crucifixion. More than a century later the form reappeared in the final movement of Brahms’s last symphony as a riposte to “Ode to Joy,” a picture of life as an endless cycle of struggle without salvation. Britten notated his passacaglia not in the usual triple-beat pattern but in a 4/4 meter; the repeated bass line, however, is in a pattern of eleven beats, which creates a symbolic cross-rhythm that twists the music into an image of pain. We sense that someone is on the cross, but we are not sure if it is the boy, Grimes, the Borough or the universe.

The third act begins with a barn dance obviously meant to signal comic relief, but there is an element of musical parody at play that deflates the grand opera gestures of the previous acts. The village band seems to be playing highlights from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus; Mrs. Sedley’s surprisingly lengthy aria, in which she suddenly assumes the role of a Jane Marple, sounds like something Ulrica the witch might sing in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. (The Met’s Felicity Palmer stole the show with this number.) As the opera heads toward Grimes’s third and final mad scene, its idiom seems to lose its bearings. Once again, nothing is what it seems. As the townspeople again become a vigilante mob, Balstrode delivers the moral punch line of the opera: “We have the power./In the black moment/When your friend suffers/Unearthly torment/We cannot turn our backs./When horror breaks one heart/All hearts are broken.” A few minutes later, he orders Peter to sail out to sea and sink his boat, doing the mob’s job for them.

Peter Grimes ends where its action began, with the eternal mending of nets and sails set to a reprise of the first sea interlude. But instead of allowing the action to come neatly full circle, John Doyle introduced a final enigma scenically. The black wall had vanished. A blue, sea-tinted light bathed the full expanse of the Met stage, visible for the first time. Grimes was dead, the problem solved–or had the Borough whitewashed its own collective guilt? The ending reminded me of the scene in another film noir predecessor, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, when the cleaning lady announces that she has disposed of the bug and the family ventures out of their apartment into the warm spring sunshine.

Works of art often reveal their distinctive character after considerable weathering, and it has taken more than a half-century for Peter Grimes to emerge from critical misreadings that ignored or softened its horrific thrust. After its premiere, many English critics hailed the opera as a kind of victory symphony, a triumphant British effort in a Germanic genre. Perhaps relief at the war’s end prevented critics from noticing that the opera’s portrayal of English society circa 1830 was hardly flattering, and that its music avoided any echo of either the “sceptred isle” neo-Elgarian style that William Walton deployed for patriotic purposes in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V in 1944 or Vaughan Williams’s green-and-pleasant-land pastoralism. Peter Grimes, it was claimed, would be the foundation of great British operas to come–what a pity, then, that its protagonist, as the discomforted critics seemed to mutter, was not our sort at all.

American critics, perhaps reacting against the general jubilation that greeted the opera in England, found it slick but heartless. One surprising American defender, however, was Edmund Wilson, who saw it at Sadler’s Wells in 1947: “To be confronted, without preparation, with an unmistakable new talent of this kind is an astonishing, even an electrifying experience.” Wilson, better than other critics, detected the opera’s resistance to easy explanation, but also got past it. “At first you think that Peter Grimes is Germany…above all he wants to prove to his neighbors that he is not the scoundrel they think him.” Just as you begin to wonder how much our greatest literary critic might have been drinking, he corrects himself: “By the time you are done with the opera–or by the time it is done with you–you have decided that Peter Grimes is the whole of bombing, machine-gunning, mining, torpedoing, ambushing humanity.” When Grimes sinks himself in his boat, Wilson concluded, “you feel that you are in the same boat as Grimes.” Wilson’s empathetic response to the opera was singular, and with Doyle’s Met production the music world has finally joined him in Grimes’s dinghy.

It is likely that the reception of Peter Grimes was also hampered by what Philip Brett termed the “open secret” of Britten’s homosexuality (which was not publicly discussed until an essay by Brett published in 1977, a year after the composer’s death) and the equally controversial matter of the composer’s pacifism. But critics were also confused by the influence on the opera of two recent but wildly different works, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), which also portrayed the life of a tight community threatened by a stormy sea, and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (first performed in 1925), with its sympathetic, psychopathic title character. Britten saw a production of Porgy in New York City, and some listeners hear a connection between the moment when Grimes bursts into the pub in the middle of a storm and Crown’s appearance at the height of the hurricane. Both characters seem to embody the destructive element of the storm. But Porgy is a folk opera that treats its characters, however stereotyped, with sympathy. The people of Catfish Row are decent, loving, mutually supportive. By contrast, the inhabitants of the Borough seem nasty, brutish and generally unpleasant; it’s a place where a man can call a woman “you wretched female” without much provocation. Yet the opening chorus of Act I of Peter Grimes, which shows the town at its eternal toil of mending nets and sails, places us within the community very much the way “Summertime” ushers us into Catfish Row.

Britten had wanted to study composition with Berg, and the influence of Wozzeck is palpable in many places in Grimes, most notably in the pub scene of Act III, with its onstage band, and in the grisly end of Act II, when Swallow, Baltsrode and the Rector, the Borough establishment, break in to Grimes’s hut and find it surprisingly neat. Their bourgeois sensibilities assuaged, they march off with no idea that a second apprentice has just died. The eerie calm in the music echoes the scene in Wozzeck where the Captain and the Doctor walk by the pond where Wozzeck has just drowned. Britten also borrowed from Berg the use of orchestral interludes to comment on the action, but the interludes in Peter Grimes, which have taken on a life of their own in the concert hall, are not manic and convulsive like those in Wozzeck but oddly, terrifyingly impersonal like the sea itself.

More generally, Wozzeck is expressionistic, while Peter Grimes is noir. Berg’s expressionism was a reaction to World War I, which came to be seen as an act of international insanity. Wozzeck takes place, we immediately realize, on the planet Crazy, where all the characters are crazy, so much so that none of them realize how deranged Wozzeck is; even the music, with its manic pacing and obsessive-compulsive organization, is crazy. Peter Grimes, by contrast, takes place in a seemingly normal English fishing village where people compliment themselves on their ability to observe social decencies: “We live and let live,/And look we keep our hands to ourselves,” they sing at the pub during the storm in Act I. And then they turn into a lynch mob.

Comparisons, however, often obscure more than they reveal. Peter Grimes lacks the vertiginous high-wire Modernism of Wozzeck and the melodic abundance of Porgy, but the critics who seized on these obvious “flaws” distracted themselves from the distinctive character of Britten’s work. This became clearer only with the appearances, in rapid succession, of The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw, all of which restate the moral and psychological conflicts of Peter Grimes in a musical language that is exclusively Britten’s–at once inventive and reticent, diatonic and dissonant. These operas, and the later Midsummer Night’s Dream, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, portray a loss of innocence, often through violence, but at the same time they problematize the assignment of guilt.

The later operas show that the enigmatic, baffling quality of Peter Grimes was not evidence of Britten’s inexperience or evasion but of his artistic intent and sense of nuance. Each opera poses an unanswerable dramatic question. Is Grimes guilty of the deaths of two apprentices? Is Captain Vere redeemed by Billy Budd’s death? Who is guilty of Miles’s death: Peter Quint or the Governess? Evil corrupts innocence; guilt hovers darkly over all the action, but it is never pinned on a single malevolent figure. Like Grimes’s boat, each opera is a dark vessel in which we lose our way.