Relentless Tides, in Britten's 'Peter Grimes’

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The forbidding beauty of storms has long been a popular subject for musicians -- turning up in everything from popular torch songs, to one of the 20th-century's finest operas.

In the classic song "Stormy Weather," made famous by Lena Horne in a 1940s movie, the mood starts out gentle and melancholy, in a verse describing cloudy skies, and constant rain. But the song quickly turns to something deeper than just dark skies and drizzle, with the lyrics, "Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere, stormy weather -- just can't get my poor self together."

That's something more than melancholy. It conveys heartache and psychological pain -- a weary life with no relief in sight. When opera covers the same emotional ground, things can get even more serious -- often deadly serious.

In the case of Britten's Peter Grimes, a story that began with a bout of personal nostalgia evolved into a grim and intensely beautiful score -- the first full-scale musical drama by an opera composer who ranks among his century's finest.

Britten was born in 1913 in Lowestoft, England -- a coastal town in the county of Suffolk. Today, it's known as a tourist destination, on England's "Sunrise Coast." But historically, it was a fishing town, where people earned a hardscrabble living from the sea.

Britten was in California, in the 1940's, when he read a narrative poem called "Peter Grimes" by the Suffolk author George Crabbe, who wrote in the early 1800s. Apparently, it made the composer homesick, and with the help of tenor Peter Pears, Britten prepared an opera scenario with the poem as inspiration. But the composer's nostalgia hardly resulted in a sentimental story. Instead, Britten's Peter Grimes is an ambiguous, foreboding drama, in which storms at sea are the backdrop for a tale of despondency, suicide and maybe even a double murder.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Peter Grimes in a performance from the historic Theater an der Wien, in Vienna. The stars are tenor Joseph Kaiser in the title role, with soprano Agneta Eichenholz as Ellen Orford, the woman who tries to help Grimes, but instead is drawn into his grim and tragic existence. The production is led by conductor Cornelius Meister.


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