Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten
Directed by Neil Armfield for the English National Opera
Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville’s story, is set on a British warship in 1797, during the war against revolutionary France and in the immediate aftermath of the great mutinies at Spithead and Nore. The ship, HMS Indomitable, is a microcosm of British society, with the officers who rule at the top, the men who work at the bottom, the two separated by the non-commissioned officers in the middle striving to attain the status of the rulers. The latter struggle to be accepted as fully-fledged officers by doing their dirty work: maintaining a regime of cruel discipline. The leading figure here is Claggart, master-at-arms, who oversees the men on behalf of the aristocratic Captain Vere. The officers themselves are constantly on the lookout for the influence of ‘French’ or revolutionary ideas.
Billy is pressganged into service on The Indomitable. Despite this, he thinks only of doing his job and winning promotion. Claggart feels threatened by Billy and forces a novice seaman to bribe him into mutiny. Billy’s anger leads him to accidentally kill Claggart, and a court-martial sentences him to be hanged. Captain Vere has the power to commute the sentence but is swayed by the need for iron discipline in the face of the threat from France. Shocked by this injustice, the men finally threaten to mutiny, while Captain Vere broods on his moral weakness in failing to save Billy.
First produced in 1951, with a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, the music of Billy Budd is full of rhythmic energy, a powerful modern work that testifies to Britten’s ability to switch from great dramatic scenes of political, and personal conflict to more reflective arias expressing internal moral dilemmas.
Britten (1913-1975), like Michael Tippett (1905-1998), developed muscially and politically in the left-wing atmosphere of the 1930s. His first opera, Peter Grimes (1945), tells the story of a solitary fisherman who employs a series of workhouse boys as apprentices. When they die under mysterious circumstances, Grimes is persecuted by a local community that blame him. He becomes a tragic figure, self-destructive but misunderstood. (See Anthony Arblaster’s “Viva La Liberta: Politics in Opera” — Chapter 9 on ‘Democratic Opera’). With Peter Grimes, Britten can be said to have founded modern British opera. Although his radicalism waned in the post-war period, he did remain a pacifist.
The ENO’s production by Neil Armfield is conceived on a grand scale, with an impressive moving hydraulic platform simulating the warship. The action is well-paced with fine acting performances accompanying some wonderful singing, in particular from Simon Keenlyside as Billy, Timothy Robinson as Captain Vere and John Tomlinson as Claggart. The orchestra, under Andrew Litton, performs to its usual high standard, capturing the opera’s tragedy and poignancy as well as the anger the men feel at the gross injustice. We come to feel what it must have been like being a seaman in the British navy of the 1790s.