Opera Scotland

Billy Budd

Music
Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976)

Text
E M Forster and Eric Crozier.

Source
Novella Billy Budd, Foretopman (1891, published 1924) by Herman Melville (1819-91).

Premières
First performance: London (Covent Garden), 1 December 1951.
Revised version: BBC Radio 13 November 1960; London (Covent Garden), 9 January 1964.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (King's Theatre), 28 March 1952.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 21 May 1987.

Background
Billy Budd was an important landmark for Britten, in that it was a return to large-scale opera for the first time since Peter Grimes, and unlike that piece, it was to be premiered at Covent Garden. Only one other work by him, the Coronation opera Gloriana, would start life there. The subject, a prominent theme throughout Britten's work, concerns an outsider oppressed by society, in this case a sailor trapped within the disciplinary structure of the Royal Navy. To this is added the conflict of good versus evil, and the helplessness of the Captain in the face of a strict disciplinary code. The first performances were received coolly, though a total of twelve performances were given at Covent Garden, and a further six on tour. It was only after Britten made some changes that its stature was recognised. The revision cut out some music and reduced the structure from four acts to two. Billy Budd is one of those special 20th century operas which can pack a hefty emotional punch when the elements of the performance gel.

Main Characters
Captain Vere, in command of HMS Indomitable (tenor)
Mr Flint, Sailing Master (baritone)
Donald, a sailor (baritone)
Novice (tenor)
Squeak, ship’s corporal (tenor)
Mr Redburn, First Lieutenant (baritone)
Mr Ratcliffe, Lieutenant (bass)
John Claggart, Master-at-Arms (bass)
Billy Budd (baritone)
Dansker (bass)

Plot Summary
The action takes place in 1797, following the recent mutinies at the Nore and Spithead, on board HMS Indomitable, at sea. There are very brief prologue and epilogue scenes in which an elderly Captain recalls the events depicted, still wrestling with his sense of guilt and helplessness. The main action begins with three pressed men being signed on from a passing merchant ship. Billy is an ideal recruit, already a skilled sailor, handsome and pleased to be aboard. Sadly he stammers, and draws attention to himself in the post-mutiny environment by saying a fond farewell to his old ship, the Rights o’ Man. Claggart, a figure of unredeemed evil, decides to have him watched, and to attempt to incriminate him. His schemes fail, but he reports Billy to the captain anyway. When Billy is summoned to the cabin to answer to Claggart’s charges, he is affected by his stammer and instinctively lashes out at Claggart, who falls dead. Vere, in full knowledge of Billy’s fundamental innocence, sees no option but to hold a court martial at which Billy is condemned to hang. Before his execution, Billy ensures that the men accept his fate without renewing the mutiny.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (3 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1967

Conductor: Benjamin Britten
London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Pears (Captain Vere), Peter Glossop (Billy), Michael Langdon (Claggart).

This recording is important because of its preservation of the composer’s own reading. With the exception of Owen Brannigan as Dansker, the leading singers were veterans of the previous year’s TV relay and the extra rehearsals that required give this performance a wonderful sense of cohesion. The cast is ideal, and anyone who remembers Michael Langdon from his performances as Ochs and Don Pasquale may be surprised by the nastiness of his Claggart. The set also contains performances of two other Britten works with the composer as accompanist. These are The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, sung by Peter Pears, and Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. No more need be said.

CHANDOS (3 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1999

Conductor: Richard Hickox
London Symphony Orchestra
Philip Langridge (Captain Vere), Simon Keenlyside (Billy), John Tomlinson (Claggart).

Philip Langridge sang Vere with Scottish Opera in the Graham Vick production of 1987. He was joined by John Tomlinson as Claggart, who made his first visit to the company since his season in the chorus for Boris Godunov and Götterdämmerung in 1968. When the production was revived in 1992, they had moved on, but the performances remained memorable because of the new Billy – Simon Keenlyside, in his final season to date with the company. Lots of the other singers will also be familiar to Scottish audiences. The performance and recording are every bit as good as you might expect.

DECCA (1 DVD) Sung in English Recorded 1966

Conductor: Charles Mackerras. Director: Basil Coleman. Designer: Tony Abbott
London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Pears (Captain Vere), Peter Glossop (Billy), Michael Langdon (Claggart).

This celebrated BBC television production was mounted very soon after the revised version had at last succeeded at Covent Garden, and it probably did more than any other staging to achieve general acceptance for this masterpiece. Most of the principals were used in Britten’s own studio recording made the following year. It is in glorious black and white, and perhaps seems a bit studio-bound, but TV companies simply do not present opera in this way anymore.

ERATO (2 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1997

Conductor: Kent Nagano
Halle Orchestra
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Captain Vere), Thomas Hampson (Billy), Eric Halfvarson (Claggart).

This recording is of interest because it resurrects the original 4-act text, which opens out the cuts and adjustments made in 1960. Again, the performance is excellent.

The Cast

Arthur Jones
 an impressed man
Billy Budd
 able seaman
Bosun
 
Cabin Boy
 
Dansker
 an old seaman
Donald
 a sailor
Edward Fairfax Vere
 Captain of H M S Indomitable
First Mate
 
First Midshipman
 
Fourth Midshipman
 
John Claggart
 Master-at-Arms
Maintop
 
Mr Flint
 Sailing Master
Mr Ratcliffe
 Second Lieutenant
Mr Redburn
 First Lieutenant
Novice
 
Novice's Friend
 
Old Vere
 
Red Whiskers
 an impressed man
Sailor
 
Second Mate
 
Second Midshipman
 
Squeak
 ship's corporal
Third Midshipman
 
Voice
 

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