Can I call it a song? Whatever. Between 1974-7, when I was working in Cardiff, I probably saw more operas than I’ve seen in the subsequent 40 years put together. I was well aware, though, of how blessed I was, there at the base of the WNO probably, we’re often told, one of the best of the World’s opera companies. I saw everything I could and somehow, in those days, I could afford it, and even get a last-minute good seat, reasonable price. Times change.
I was often gripped by the spectacle and experience as much as the music – Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ comes to mind, as one of the first I saw, open mouthed. I heard all the arias that were meant to impress – and they did – I couldn’t help but be impressed by Suzanne Murphy’s Queen of the Night from ‘The Magic Flute’, by the ‘Pearl Fishers’ duet (incidentally the only opera I ever saw with my much loved and much missed sister Sue), by the slaves chorus from Nabucco, and so on.
But, Peter Grimes was something else, and I was quite unprepared for its effect on me! Perhaps because its music (my first taste of Britten) was so distinct from the Traviatas and Rigolettos and Bohemes, I was already paying a different kind of attention, I don’t know, but those wonderful sea overtures, for instance, hooked me even before the solos and choruses of the great narrative construction.
But it’s this solo that really got me: when the outcast, socially suspect recluse Grimes bursts through the door of the inn on that storm-ravaged night and sings words that have an unearthly visionary tone. His words at first, as he talks of the heavenly bodies (‘drawing up the clouds of human grief’) sustain a single note, while the strings behind begin to descend in subtle intervals. Somehow it not only captures the sense of dark wonder at space and the elements (‘Who can decipher/in storm or starlight..’)but also the tragic sense of lostness and alienation of a single soul in that universe. After a brief, manic moment, where the music reflects a crazier sense of bewilderment – ‘like a flashing turmoil/ or a shoal of herring..’ –we return to the single note line for a more melancholy sense of alienation – and regret? (Grimes, may, after all, have been responsible for a boy’s death).
This part of the song is the most chilling – and poignant – of all. The ‘who’ of his question becomes a one-note eerie hooting then melts into the rest of the question, moving down the scale, more melodic, and with a genuine note of heartbreaking enquiry – ‘Who….can turn skies back and begin again?’
The chorus mutters ‘He’s mad or drunk..’but me, I’ve been profoundly moved. Always drawn to the solitaries. And I’d never heard anything like it.