Billy Budd - Further information

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Billy Budd
Benjamin Britten
E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier based on the story by Hermann Melville

World Première on 1st December 1951, Covent Garden, London


The Festival of Britain, in 1951, was seen as the British Government’s first opportunity, after the Second World War, to advertise their ambition to demonstrate to a war ravaged Europe that recovery, enterprise and rebuilding
could be undertaken without compromising the collective social conscience or
sacrificing national traditions. The newly formed "Arts Council of Great Britain" (the Government appointed body channelling government funding to arts institutions thus keeping politicians at arms' length) commissioned Benjamin Britten to compose a full scale opera for the Festival to be performed by the recently founded Covent Garden Opera Company at the Royal Opera House. The première took place on 1st December 1951.

Britten had been considering a possible opera on Herman Melville’s story of the same name well before the commission fortuitously arrived. The première of the original four act version conducted by Britten himself was, however, not the success all anticipated. Britten was notoriously hypersensitive to press criticism and the scathing remarks concerning aspects of the libretto and its musical setting that appeared in the Sunday newspaper "The Observer" led Britten to reconsider the work. In 1960 the composer produced a revised two act version which, notably, cut the critically attacked appearance of Captain Vere before his crew in advance of the confrontation with the enemy and in which the Captain is emotionally, perhaps over emotionally, acclaimed by the ship's company. Critical opinion was reversed and even "The Observer" recanted. The second première, in January of 1964, was an unqualified success and the work entered the repertory worldwide without quite attaining internationally the popularity of Peter Grimes.

Billy Budd remains, however, potentially among the most accessible of Britten’s operas not least because of its captivatingly direct musical language, its riveting story and its adherence to a "Grand Opera" tradition aided by the use of great ensembles for the whole company, sweeping orchestral effects, moving choruses and unrestrained emotional outpourings from the two central characters accompanied by rich musical textures. All this is combined with fascinating dramatic handling of the social problems of the British Navy during the 18th century and the way in which the themes of homosexuality, both repressed and expressed, both as hero worship and entwined with sadistic abuse of men under command, can be explored within an operatic framework. The drama is framed by Captain Vere’s flashbacks as an elderly man to his days as Captain of His Majesty’s ship “Indomitable” during the Napoleonic wars of 1797 as she sails into enemy waters. In the epilogue Vere shatteringly admits that he could have indeed saved
Billy and, without explaining why he did not, reveals to us that it was Billy,
through his execution under the articles of war, that saved him.

The musical ideas in Billy Budd are relatively simple compared with, say, The Rape of Lucretia or The Turn of the Screw but they are developed and enriched by the story and Britten’s orchestrating skills to make the work a thrilling tour de force of emotion leaving the audience yearning for justice for young Budd and inviting the sensitive witness to participate in Captain Vere’s private and public moral dilemma.

As Intendant of the Bayerische Staatsoper I have deliberately chosen a director for this first new production of Billy Budd for the National Theatre who is not part of the British tradition that is so close to this work. Our new production will be directed by Peter Mussbach and designed by Erich Wonder with Nathan Gunn in the title role, John Daszak as Captain Edward Fairfax Vere and John Tomlinson  as John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. The Bayerische Staatsoper première of Billy Budd will take place on 15th January 2005 and will be conducted, in its original four act version, now at last acknowledged as being closer to the composer’s intentions, by the music director designate of the Staatsoper, Kent Nagano.

Sir Peter Jonas
March 2004