Britten 100, Billy Budd

2013 is coming to an end and we are going to remember the BEST of this year:

Celebrating Britten’s centenary! The Operas!



Billy Budd, Op. 50, is an opera by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by the English novelist E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the short novel Billy Budd by Herman Melville.

It was first performed at the Royal Opera House, London, on 1 December 1951 in four acts, but it was later revised as a two-act opera with a prologue and an epilogue.

A little bit of history:

The author E. M. Forster had an interest in the novella, which he discussed in his Clark lectures at Cambridge University. Meeting Britten before the Second World War, he developed a friendship with the composer.

In 1948, they discussed whether Forster would write a libretto for Britten, and by that November, Britten seems to have mentioned Billy Budd as a possible work to be adapted. Forster agreed to this project, and worked with Eric Crozier, a regular Britten collaborator, to write the opera’s libretto.

While Britten was composing the music, the Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini premiered his one-act operatic setting of Billy Budd at the 1949 Venice International Festival. This disturbed Britten, but Ghedini’s opera gained little notice.

Britten originally intended the title role for Geraint Evans, who prepared it but then withdrew because it lay too high for his voice. Britten chose Theodor Uppman to replace him, and Evans sang a different role, that of Mr Flint.

When Britten conducted the premiere, the work received 17 curtain calls. Uppman was acclaimed as a new star.


Performance history:

The opera was originally written in four acts. This version is occasionally revived, such as at the Vienna State Opera in 2001 and 2011. It has been recorded at least twice.

In 1960 Britten revised the score substantially in preparation for a BBC broadcast, and compressed it into two acts.

Britten changed Vere’s first appearance after the prologue from a public speech to a private moment alone in his cabin.

He eliminated Vere’s appearance before the crew at the end of act 1. He made the revisions because, at the time, the singer Peter Pears could not vocally achieve all aspects of the role of Vere. Britten changed some of the structural balance from the contrasting acts 3 and 4.

The 1966 BBC Television broadcast was conducted by Charles Mackerras, with Peter Glossop (baritone) as Billy, Peter Pears as Vere, and Michael Langdon as Claggart.

The 1967 Decca studio recording was made of the two-act version; the recording sessions were attended by staff from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where the opera had been revived in this version in 1964.

In the four-act original version, Billy Budd received its United States première in 1952 in performances by Indiana University Opera Company. The opera was produced on 6 November 1970 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Uppman reprising the title role; the cast also included Richard Lewis as Vere, Geraint Evans as Claggart, Bruce Yarnell as Redburn, Raymond Michalski as Flint, and Arnold Voketaitis as Ratcliffe.

It has become part of the repertory of the New York Metropolitan Opera. A 2010 production by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera marked the operatic directorial debut of the theatre director Michael Grandage.

Baritones who have sung the role of Billy Budd include Sir Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, Richard Stilwell, Nathan Gunn, Rod Gilfry, Bo Skovhus, Thomas Hampson, Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Notable Veres have included Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, John Mark Ainsley.


Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, an old man, reflects on his life and his time in the navy. He reflects on the conflict between good and evil, he is tormented by guilt over the case of Billy Budd on board his ship, HMS Indomitable, some years earlier.

Act 1

The crew of the Indomitable works on deck. For slipping and bumping into an officer, the Novice is sentenced to be flogged. At the same time a cutter approaches, returning from a merchant ship where it has pressed three sailors into the Royal Navy.

One of these sailors, Billy Budd, seems overjoyed with his situation – entirely different from the other two who are not so happy. Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, calls him “a find in a thousand,” despite the slight defect of a stammer. Billy says a jaunty farewell to the Rights o’ Man, his former ship, innocent of what his words imply. The officers take his words as a deliberate provocation and order the men below decks. Claggart tells Squeak, the ship’s corporal, to keep an eye on Billy and give him a rough time.

The Novice returns from his flogging, unable to walk and helped along by a friend. Billy is shocked at the cruelty of the punishment, but is certain that if he follows the rules he will be in no danger. Dansker, an old sailor, nicknames Billy “Baby Budd” for his innocence.

At this point in the four-act version came the climax of Act I, in which Captain Vere appeared on deck to give a speech to the men. In the two-act version, Dansker simply tells the others Vere’s nickname, “Starry Vere,” and this is enough for the impulsive Billy to swear his loyalty to the unseen captain.

In his cabin, Captain Vere muses over classical literature. His officers enter, and they discuss the revolution in France and the mutinies in the Royal Navy sparked by French ideas of democracy. The officers warn that Billy may cause trouble, but Vere dismisses their fears and expresses his love for the men under his command.

Below decks the sailors rough-house, but old Dansker remains gloomy. Billy goes for some tobacco to cheer him up, and discovers Squeak rifling through his kit. In a rage, Billy begins to stammer. He knocks Squeak to the ground as Claggart and the corporals enter. Billy is still unable to speak, but Claggart takes his side and sends Squeak to the brig. However, when alone, Claggart reveals his hatred for Billy and vows to destroy him. He orders the Novice to try to bribe Billy into joining a mutiny, and the broken-spirited Novice quickly agrees. Billy refuses the bribe and believes he will be rewarded, but Dansker warns him to beware of Claggart.

Act 2

Claggart begins to tell Vere about the danger that Billy represents, but is interrupted by the sighting of a French ship. The Indomitable attacks, but loses the enemy in the mist. Claggart returns, and tells Vere that Billy poses a threat of mutiny. Vere does not believe him and sends for Billy so that Claggart may confront him.

Later, in Vere’s cabin, Claggart repeats the false charge to Billy’s face. Once again, Billy begins to stammer in rage. Unable to speak, he strikes Claggart, killing him. The Captain is forced to convene an immediate court-martial, and the officers find Billy guilty and sentence him to hang. Billy begs Vere to save him, and the officers appeal to him for guidance, but Vere remains silent and accepts their verdict. He goes into the cabin where Billy is being held, and the orchestra suggests a tender offstage meeting as the captain informs Billy of the death sentence. This was the end of Act 3 in the four-act version.

Billy prepares for his execution in his cell. Dansker brings him a drink and reveals that the crew is willing to mutiny for his sake, but Billy is resigned to his fate. Four o’clock that morning, the crew assembles on deck, and Billy is brought out. The Articles of War are read, and show that Billy must be hanged. Just before his execution, he praises Vere with his final words, singing “Starry Vere, God Bless you!” echoed by the rest of the crew.


Vere, as an old man, remembers Billy’s burial at sea, reflecting that the man he failed to save has instead blessed and saved him. As he recalls Billy’s blessing, he realises he has discovered genuine goodness and can be at peace with himself.

Celebrating Benjamin Britten’s centenary, music and operas!
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