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A boy apprenticed to the fisherman, Peter Grimes, has died at sea. After hearing Grimes' testimony, the magistrate, Mr. Swallow, finds that the boy died in “accidental circumstances.” He warns Grimes not to get another apprentice. Grimes demands a full trial, and the right to employ another boy, but his pleas are ignored. Ellen Orford, the local schoolteacher, assures Grimes that, with her help, the future will be better.
Scene i, Morning
The Borough – the seaside village – goes about its business. Grimes returns from fishing; only the retired Captain Balstrode and Ned Keene, the local chemist, help Grimes bring in his boat. Keene tells Grimes he has arranged for a new apprentice from the workhouse. The carter, Hobson, at first refuses to fetch the boy, but consents when Ellen offers to look after the child on the journey. As the storm grows, Balstrode tries to dissuade Grimes from a course he fears will result in another tragedy, but Grimes is determined to get rich, marry Ellen and silence the Borough gossips.
Scene ii, The Boar Tavern
Late that night, the storm reaches hurricane force. To the annoyance of Auntie, the tavern landlady, Mrs. Sedley arrives to wait for Ned Keene; he has promised to meet her with a new supply of laudanum. Auntie’s “nieces” come in, to be abused by Balstrode and Bob Boles, the Methodist preacher. At the height of the storm, Ned Keene enters with news that the cliff by Grimes’ hut has been washed away. He is followed by Grimes himself. When Ellen and the new apprentice arrive, soaked and exhausted from their journey, Grimes insists on taking him straight home. He drags the boy into the night over angry protests.
Scene i, A street by the sea
Ellen sits at the beach with John, the new apprentice, prior to church service. She encourages him to speak, but he says nothing. She then notices a tear in the boy’s coat and bruising on his neck, and fears the worst. Grimes enters, and roughly calls the boy away to fish. Ellen pleads for the boy’s right to take a day of rest, but Grimes refuses. In a frenzy, he hits Ellen and rushes off with the boy. The scene is witnessed, and as the congregation exits the church there is a call for action against Grimes. The men set out for his hut.
Scene ii, Grimes' hut
Grimes is in a rage. Haunted by the death of the last apprentice, he feels his dream of marrying Ellen slipping away. When he hears the men from the Borough approaching, he immediately assumes John has betrayed him. As Grimes hurries the boy down the cliff towards the sea, the men knock on the door. Grimes panics. John screams as he slips and falls. Grimes climbs down after him, as the men enter to find the hut deserted.
Scene i, Night
A few days have passed. In the Moot Hall a dance is in full swing. Outside, Auntie’s “nieces” manage to escape the unwelcomed attentions of Swallow. Mrs. Sedley tells Ned Keene she has conclusive proof that Grimes murdered his apprentice. Keene leaves her to her midnight ravings. Ellen and Balstrode appear, discussing Grimes’ disappearance. Mrs. Sedley overhears that Ellen has found the boy’s sweater down by the shore. Ellen and Balstrode decide to find Grimes and help the boy. They depart, and Mrs. Sedley organizes a manhunt for Grimes.
Scene ii, Some hours after
Grimes is alone, tortured by the distant sound of the hunt, longing for escape and peace. Ellen and Balstrode find him, but he does not notice them. Balstrode helps Grimes push his boat out to sea for the last time. Day breaks and the Borough goes about its business. Far out at sea a boat is sinking.
Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes in the Opera Australia/Houston Grand Opera co-production of Peter Grimes. Photo: Branco Gaica © 2009 (Opera Australia)