We had every intention of spending the weekend listening to the rest of the 2013 Proms Ring cycle (we'd already listened to the splendid Das Rheingold and had begun listening to Die Walküre but had to stop after about 15 minutes when, for some unfathomable reason, we decided the Siegmund was impossibly dreadful; he wasn't, he was just fine) but instead ended by watching DVDs of two productions of Britten's Peter Grimes: the 1969 BBC TV production with Britten conducting and Peter Pears as Grimes, and the NVC Arts/Kultur release of the Royal Opera House production of 1981 with Colin Davis conducting and Jon Vickers as Grimes. The stagings of both productions pretty much sucked, the BBC TV staging by Joan Cross and Brian Large totally forgivable as it was done in a TV studio with all a TV studio's constraints as a performance space for opera; the ROH staging by John Vernon with designers Timothy O'Brian and Tazeena Firth totally unforgivable. Musically and dramatically, however, neither production sucked but there was a vast difference in the reading of the work in the two productions in respect both of the conducting and of the singer-actors portraying the work's protagonist. One would expect that the performance conducted by Britten would be definitive (if any performance of any work can be called definitive) as he's the work's composer but that's not always guaranteed to be the case by any means. The composer could well be a great composer but a lousy conductor, a not unknown combo (Igor Stravinsky is frequently put forward as a case in point). Happily — very happily indeed — that does not appear to be the case with Benjamin Britten. We've never heard Grimes performed with the searing intensity and passion Britten drew from his musical forces — orchestra, singer-actors, and chorus alike — in what is an intricate and difficult score and it's all quite breathtaking even given the ancient mono audio. The most one could say for Colin Davis's work in the ROH production is that he made a feeling, workmanlike, and conscientious job of it and was true to the score as written. As to the critical matter of the characterization of the work's central figure, Peter Grimes himself, the performances of the singer-actors in these two productions could not be more unlike. This role, as almost everyone knows, was written by Britten for his lifelong partner Peter Pears and so one can be assured that Pears's characterization here, especially with Britten on the podium, is absolutely definitive and a powerful and moving performance it is, too. Pears plays Grimes as being a basically good, even gentle and caring man but with a hot temper that can sometimes get a bit out of hand, and as a man somewhat if not entirely bewildered concerning why it is he can never fit in comfortably and become a welcome member of the Borough community. At bottom, Pears's Grimes is a seriously damaged individual and because of that, quite sympathetic as a character, all things considered. The Grimes of Jon Vickers is, of course, essentially the same character but with a meaningful difference, and if Vickers's Grimes is not definitive (and strictly speaking it's not, as Britten is said to have loathed it) it's nevertheless powerful, deeply moving, and terrifyingly intense, even at times ferocious; so much so that at his first entrance we markedly and involuntarily were made to physically wince. There's little that's good, gentle, and caring about Grimes as played by Vickers and the character's hot temper in his reading seems perpetual and perpetually on the verge of getting more than a bit out of hand. And Vickers's Grimes seems not at all bewildered concerning why it is he can never fit in comfortably and become a welcome member of the Borough community. We sense he knows why and is really pissed by it whereas with Pears's Grimes we sense he seems to only suspect and blames mostly himself. Money is the problem imagines Grimes in both readings, and if he can amass enough of it at his trade, Vickers's Grimes, it seems to us, is certain he'll be welcomed with open arms as a member of the Borough community and fit in there wonderfully well as opposed to our sense that Pears's Grimes seems only to surmise as much, his surmise an act born of desperation. Vickers's Grimes is also at bottom a seriously damaged individual and a nasty piece of work into the bargain who cares for nothing and no one but himself and yet we're still made to feel a fair measure of sympathy for him on account of his seriously damaged nature. After viewing these two productions we couldn't help but fantasize an impossibility: a production of Peter Grimes with staging done by a director/stage designer devoted to realizing vividly Britten's sea-salty Borough and its people with Vickers onstage as Grimes and Britten in the pit directing all the musical forces. An impossibility as we've said, and on several counts at that. But its impossibility doesn't prevent us fantasizing about such a production and relishing every detail of it in imagination. Truly, an unfettered and vivid imagination is one of the great wonders and gifts of the human estate.