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Despite reports that Benjamin Britten paced nervously at the back of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre when Peter Grimes was first performed, this work is now regarded by many as the greatest English opera ever written.
It certainly marked a revival of post-war English opera. The seeds for Peter Grimes were sown not on these shores, but in Los Angeles. Having left war-struck Britain in 1939, he chanced on George Crabbe’s poem The Borough in a second-hand bookshop in Los Angeles, and started transforming it into what would become only his second opera, ready for its premiere in 1945.
Back in the UK, he launched the rebirth of English opera with the story of the tragic, lonely fisherman, who was both cantankerous and misunderstood. By way of contrast from the often tense vocal machinations, four orchestral interludes pepper the score and, long before the first night, Britten had decided that they should stand alone, too. They have arguably become more popular than the opera itself. It is worth noting that there is also a fifth ‘interlude’, a Passacaglia, which is often played alongside them.
London Symphony Orchestra ; Steuart Bedford (conductor). Naxos: 8557196.
Illustration: Mark Millington