By Paul DrewThe title role of Benjamin Britten's 1945 opera Peter Grimes was created by (and likely for) Peter Pears, but from the late 60s on it was the province of the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. It was said that Britten himself was not particularly happy with Vickers' rough, almost brutish portrayal of Grimes (in contrast to Pears' more vulnerable interpretation), but for an entire generation of operagoers Vickers was Grimes.
Britten was quoted as describing Grimes as "a subject very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual." It was and continues to be a story dramatically open to interpretation: was Grimes responsible for the deaths of his apprentices? Was he sexually molesting them? Or was he an innocent, persecuted by closed-minded villagers? Is Grimes victim or villain? Whether one prefers Pears or Vickers, the opera remains relentlessly intense - from the first bars through the famous, haunting "sea interludes," one knows that this will not end well.
From 1981, here is Jon Vickers in Grimes' final scene. Note the crisp enunciation of the English lyrics - a trademark of Britten's operas.