That's what it says right on the box, and for a change I enthusiastically agree. Everything works together in this opera - the dramaturgy and the music - to fulfill the fundamental objective of the genre, a total synthesis of words, music, and theatrics. Likewise, everything works in this production, a film made for BBC broadcast in 1969, in color, staged and recorded in a small studio, conducted by Britten himself and starring Britten's long-time collaborator Peter Pears. I have two other DVDs of this extraordinary opera, both of them quite good, but this production is iconic, a supernova of affective art. Yes, "modern" opera is valid!
Peter Pears created the role of 'Peter Grimes' in the premiere of the opera on stage. Grimes is a rough, hard-bitten, antipathetic fisherman, ostracized by his community for his cruelty and abuse of his boy apprentice. In fact, he is suspected of having murdered the boy by mistreatment. The drama begins with a coroner's inquest, which rules that the boy's death was accidental. Grimes is defended, and loved, by the schoolmistress Ellen Orford, who helps him acquire another boy from the workhouse-orphanage. The role of Orford is sung magnificently here by Heather Harper; her presence and voice, and the lyrical music written for that presence, is as warm as sunshine bursting through a drenching rain.
The scenes of the opera are all in the village: on the wharf, in the street, inside the local brothel, and in Grimes's hut. These are clearly 'sets' such as might be used in an opera house production, giving us the illusion of the living stage. The BBC deserves all reverence and adulation for pioneering the genre of opera films and operas on TV. Hurray for public broadcasting! Hurray for government patronage of the arts!
I've recently watched all four of the filmed BBC productions of Britten's operas -- Owen Wingrave, The Beggar's Opera, Billy Budd, and Peter Grimes -- and I've been dissatisfied with Owen and Billy, especially with the latter. Basically, I don't find the vocal lines in either of those operas convincing as music. I have other objections to Britten's treatment of the Billy Budd story, which I've expressed in a separate review. What astounds me is that Grimes and Budd incorporate so many of the same themes, so much of the same musical idiom and theatrical ambience, yet Grimes is a richer and more powerful opera in every way. Both works are 'symphonic' operas, in which the orchestra narrates the emotional drama as much as, or more than, the singers. There are long orchestral interludes between the swiftly-changing scenes of Peter Grimes, and they are in effect profound meditations on the action. Britten's setting of words in Billy Budd seems to me to be awkwardly prosaic, ponderous, arbitrarily bludgeoned on the surface of the orchestral music. That's not at all the case in Peter Grimes; the vocal lines nestle in the symphonic score as naturally as naked bodies in a warm bed. The libretto consists chiefly of rhymed couplets - trimeters and tetrameters - and yet the language never seems jingly or goofy, as it does in Billy Budd. This is language that wants to be sung.
There's an immense tempestuous grandeur to this opera, as grand as the earth-scouring man-devouring sea that looms behind the scenes and the story. Peter Grimes is more than Britten's masterpiece; it's one of the masterpieces of all 20th C opera.