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An English fishing village
During a coroner’s inquest at the town hall, the lawyer Swallow questions the fisherman, Peter Grimes, about the death of his apprentice during a storm at sea. Though the room is crowded with villagers hostile to Grimes, Swallow accepts the man’s explanation of the event and rules that the boy died accidentally. He warns Grimes not to take on another apprentice unless he lives with a woman who can care for the boy. When the hall empties, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress, asks Grimes to have courage and promises to help him find a better life.

Act I

As the villagers go about their daily routine the apothecary Ned Keene tells Grimes that he has found him a new apprentice at a workhouse and Ellen Orford offers to go and fetch him, in spite of the villagers’ hostile comments. Grimes is left alone with Captain Balstrode, one of his few friends, who tries to convince him to leave the village. The fisherman explains that first he has to make enough money to open a store and marry Ellen.

That night, as a storm rages, the villagers gather at Auntie’s tavern. When Grimes enters, there is an uncomfortable silence. Ellen arrives with the new apprentice, John, and Grimes immediately takes the boy back into the storm and to his hut.


Act II

On Sunday morning, as Ellen and John are watching the villagers go to church, she discovers a bruise on the young boy’s neck. Grimes comes to take John fishing. Ignoring Ellen’s concerns, he hits her and drags the child off. The villagers, who have witnessed this brutality, decide to confront the fisherman, and an angry mob heads off to Grimes’s hut.

At his hut, Grimes hears the mob approaching and rushes John out of the back door. The boy slips and falls down the cliff and Grimes escapes. The villagers find the hut empty and orderly and decide that they have misjudged Grimes. Captain Balstrode looks over the cliff and knows better.



A dance is underway in the town hall. Captain Balstrode and Ellen have been searching for Grimes, Ellen has found the boy’s jersey but there is no sign of Grimes or John. Once the villagers realize Grimes’ boat has returned they mount another manhunt, convinced that Grimes is guilty of the death of his new apprentice.

Grimes, deranged and raving, hears the villagers shouting his name in the distance. Ellen asks Grimes to come home, but Balstrode tells him to sail out and take his own life. He helps Grimes launch the boat, and then leads Ellen away. As the dawn breaks, the villagers return to their daily chores. Swallow tells them that the coast guard has reported a sinking boat, but no one listens to him.

Synopsis courtesy of Houston Grand Opera and Opera Australia

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper.