CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Santa Fe Preview: Billy Budd

available at Amazon
Britten, Billy Budd, S. Keenlyside, P. Langridge, London Symphony Orchestra, R. Hickox [2-act revised version]

available at Amazon
Britten, Billy Budd, A. Rolfe Johnson, T. Hampson, Hallé Orchestra, K. Nagano [original 4-act version]

available at Amazon
Britten, Billy Budd, P. Pears, P. Glossop, M. Langdon, London Symphony Orchestra, B. Britten [2-act revised version]
Although Santa Fe Opera generally holds the lead in presenting contemporary opera to American audiences, it has been playing catch-up with the major Britten operas. The company finally staged Peter Grimes in 2005 (the production by Paul Curran will come to Washington National Opera this season) and, as we expected, takes up Billy Budd this summer. The Francesca Zambello production from Washington National Opera in 2004 was a blockbuster, but Santa Fe has turned again to Paul Curran for this new production. Whatever else the staging has in store, the company has notified its outdoor theater's neighbors that three cannon shots are fired during the performance.

The libretto is an ingenious adaptation of Herman Melville's last prose work, the novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, which was written from 1888 to 1891 and concluded five months before Melville's death, but not published until 1924 (the published version only the last of a number of forms Melville worked through). The opera was originally divided into four acts, but Britten created a two-act revision in 1960, which is now the standard version. Britten wrote that "who brought up the idea of Billy Budd no one can quite remember; it was probably telepathic and simultaneous," but it was around the same time, in 1948, that E. M. Forster first became a party to Britten's plans with librettist Eric Crozier. To the possibility of working with Forster, Britten wrote, "opera needs a great human being like him in it--which is a dazzling prospect." It is possible that the idea came first from Forster, who had admired the novella in the 1920s, during his Clark Lectures at Cambridge. Another Britten friend, W. H. Auden, also referred to Billy Budd in a poem about Melville.

Britten cast the captain, Edward Fairfax Vere (nicknamed "Starry Vere" by his adoring crew), as an idealistic tenor, the role created by Britten's partner, Peter Pears (see Kenneth Green's Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, a painting from 1943). Vere relies on the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart (a sinister bass nicknamed "Jemmy Legs"), who is responsible for law and order on the ship. Most of the crew members are not even known by name, with the obvious exception of the new foretopman, impressed unlawfully with other "recruits" in the opening scene, Billy Budd (nicknamed "Baby" and "Beauty"), the baritone torn between the opposing representatives of the two poles of the male voice.

Vere is a noble ideal, an honorable man lost in a genteel system, who cannot do the right thing to defend Billy from Claggart. The classically educated Vere, at one point seen reading Plutarch in his cabin, calls Claggart "a veritable Argus" (the Greek god of 100 eyes), a mythological reference lost on his officers. Billy pledges an almost matrimonial loyalty to the ship's captain ("Starry, I'll follow you through darkness"), whom the crew uniformly adore. When Billy is told he has been appointed foretopman, he exuberantly bids farewell to his old ship, the Rights o' Man. The officers think it is a reference to Thomas Paine's revolutionary tract The Rights of Man (1791–1792), an English adaptation of a French revolutionary document (Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen, August 26, 1789). English sailors in this period were often sympathetic to the American revolutionaries, which led to a mutiny on the HMS Nore (the officers in Billy Budd call that ship the "floating Republic"). The suspicious officers order Claggart to keep an eye on Billy, which the Master-at-Arms interprets as a mandate to destroy him.

available at Amazon
Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography

available at Amazon
Mervyn Cooke and Philip Reed, Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)
Claggart walks along the deck to sing his aria ("O beauty, o handsomeness, o goodness! ...I am doomed to annihilate you"), in which we understand that Billy has upset what Claggart established, "an order such as reigns in Hell." Paraphrasing the opening verses of the Gospel of John, Claggart says of Billy, "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers." (There are interesting similarities between Claggart and Iago in Verdi's Otello, especially his aria "Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato," in which he delights in his life's mission, to be evil.)

Around the time of the work on Billy Budd, Britten became friendly with a young Aldeburgh fisherman, Billy Burrell, whose family also ran a beach station near Britten's house, where Britten met, also around this time, a boy named Robin Long, nicknamed "Nipper." As described in Humphrey Carpenter's chatty but well-informed biography, Britten often rode in Burrell's boat, sometimes with Nipper: a photograph of the three together in the boat, taken around the same time as this one, was used as the cover art of Britten's recording of the opera. Britten's complicated relationships with boys were the subject of a painstakingly researched book by John Bridcut, Britten's Children.

Carpenter also makes an analysis of the HMS Indomitable in terms of a British boys school, an all-male environment that all of the creators of Billy Budd knew and hated: Vere as the idolized headmaster, Claggart as a bullying prefect or master, and the tormenting of the newcomer, Billy, as the rituals of schoolboy hazing. Carpenter makes a connection with a remark Britten supposedly made to Crozier, about being sexually abused at school. It does not square up with Britten's efforts to desexualize the libretto, in opposition to the Melville text and Forster's wishes (who said he wanted Claggart's attraction to Billy to be portrayed as "love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil"). According to Carpenter, Michael Tippett stayed with Britten and Pears and heard the score of Billy Budd. He did not think much of the libretto, remembering a "marvelous remark -- I think it got changed -- when they were going to clear the decks in order to let off the gun, and the wonderful order, given by Claggart or somebody, 'Clear the decks of seamen!' I roared with laughter!" That line ended up simply as "Clear the decks!"

Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes his first American appearance in the title role, having debuted it earlier this spring with Opera Australia. It is widely expected to be a role well suited to the New Zealander, known both for his incisive baritone and his good looks. For reasons that are examined at length in Carpenter's biography, Billy is really not the main character of Billy Budd, as the opera is more about Vere, the role created by Peter Pears but also memorably sung by Philip Langridge (in the only DVD version). William Burden, a one-time Santa Fe apprentice, is singing Vere (the last time he was mentioned here was when he withdrew from an opera in Paris, and he was generally admired as Aschenbach a couple years ago), with Peter Rose's Claggart rounding out the twisted "love triangle" of the opera. Edo de Waart, chief conductor of Santa Fe Opera, will be on the podium.

Performances of Billy Budd remain on July 25 and 31, August 6, 14, and 21 at Santa Fe Opera.


Henry Holland said...

I love this opera, I think it's Britten's operatic masterpiece. The revision is mostly minor changes, but Britten (unwisely, I think) cut a scene at the end of the old act one where Vere addresses his men and urges them on--it was supposedly cut because Pears couldn't sing it after the initial run of performances as it was modeled on Otello's "Esultate!". By cutting this, it kind of makes exactly why his men fight so hard for him later on kind of under-motivated. I saw a production that included it in St. Louis years ago and it was very effective. Oh well.

Hopefully Santa Fe will do Death in Venice soon.....

Bill said...

Another DVD now available: A BBC production of the opera starring Peter Pears was released by Decca on 7/08.

Chester said...

I prefer the 4 act version for some of the music that was cut. It is such a beautiful opera.
And what ever happened with the Metropolitan Opera telecast? That was an effective production.

Charles T. Downey said...

Death in Venice, absolutely, but I am personally hoping for Midsummer Night's Dream at Santa Fe. All kinds of resonance with the Santa Fe summer setting.