Billy Budd – Benjamin Britten - Royal Opera House – Covent Garden
In September 2000 I was at ROH to see Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd, conducted by Richard Hickox. The libretto was by E.M. Foster and Eric Crozier after a story by Hermann Melville. It is a power struggle between good and evil with a hint of homosexuality. (Britten was a homosexual).
First performed in London in 1951, the action takes place largely on board an 18th Century “man-o’-war” (the battleship ‘Indomitable’ during the French Napoleonic wars of 1797). It tells of the execution of the gentle sailor Billy for the accidental killing of his tormentor, Claggart. The work is written for an all-male cast and thus, perhaps because of this, has not been such a popular opera. A Revised Version in two acts was produced in 1961 and it is this version which the ROH have used. An earlier operatic version of Melville’s story was made by the Italian composer Ghedini. That opera, in one act, has a libretto by Salvatore Quasimodo and was first performed in Venice in 1949.
In the Prologue Captain Vere, now an old man and long retired from the Navy, is haunted by a moment in his life when he was tested and found wanting.
In Act I - the crew are at work, harshly supervised by the officers. A novice seaman accidentally collides with the Bosun and later slips and falls. The furious Boson orders Squeak, the ship’s corporal; to have the novice flogged. New recruits are being interviewed by the Master-at-Arms, Claggart: only one pleases him: Billy Budd.
Billy’s only defect in an occasional stammer when he is under emotional stress. Billy is jolly and well liked by the men but the officers fear he is having too much of an influence on them, especially after Billy sings “Rights o’ Man” (a farewell to his old life and welcome to the new). Which is misinterpreted as a reference to Thomas Paine’s ‘subversive’ tract “The Rights of Man” (what would be called a “political statement” today). Vere discounts this. Later that night the men are off-duty, relaxing.
An evocative shanty yields way to a jaunty song. Billy discovers Squeak rifling through his kit bag and they fight. Claggart arrives with his corporals, has Squeak put in irons and congratulates Billy (Claggart is a real “turn-coat” looking after his own ends and so siding with whatever side suits him; what is called running with the hare and hunting with the hounds). A young boy trips into Claggart and receives a savage blow from his leash. Claggart is determined to destroy Billy whose goodness and beauty are now driving him to despair. Claggart tries to get Billy involved in a mutiny.
In Act II - Claggart goes to Vere and tells him that Billy is planning a mutiny. Vere does not believe this and orders Billy and Claggart to his cabin in order that Claggart can confront Billy face-to-face. In the captain’s cabin Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny. Unable to defend himself because of his stammer Billy strikes Claggart who falls dead. Vere, although he blames himself for the tragedy, does not intervene and Billy is sentenced to death by hanging. Vere knows he should have saved Billy but has this conflict between human instinct and the inflexible rules of conduct during wartime. In chains before his execution, Billy sings a moving ballad. The Articles of War are proclaimed and the death sentence pronounced. Billy’s final words -“ Starry Vere, God bless you” - are taken up by the ship’s company.
In the Epilogue Vere is once again an old man. He recognises that although he has jailed Billy and himself, Billy has saved and blessed him. Like Billy, Vere, too, can see the far shining sail and be at peace.