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A Monthly Culture Matrix For the Cosmopolitan Traveler

Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten


Vienna State Opera / Vienna / Music

The fisherman’s tragedy. Benjamin Britten’s breakout opera (and still, for many, his greatest) centers on a violent loner whose apprentice, a mere boy from the workhouse, dies at sea under murky circumstances. Nevertheless, Grimes is allowed to recruit another. When the work was still new, Britten declared the subject to be one “very” close to his heart: “the struggle of the individual against the masses.” He added, “The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” Contemporary scholars are more apt to read the opera as an allegory for a less generic matter even closer to Britten’s heart: the oppression of gay people in a society that branded them as outlaws. (Jon Vickers, a major exponent of the role, took vigorous exception to this interpretation.) The current Vienna cast stands out as much for seriousness of purpose as for bankability and glamour. Jonas Kaufmann is Grimes. Lise Davidsen is the widowed schoolmistress Ellen Orford, who stands by him in the delusional hope of a second marriage. Bryn Terfel is Balstrode, a retired sea captain who knows when it’s all over. Simone Young conducts. —M.G.

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