Opera in the 20th Century

September 20, 2004

Billy Budd, Act I

Posted by Charles T. Downey at 9:25 PM | Link to this post

In his article on Britten for the first edition of the New Grove, Peter Evans described this opera as
Britten's biggest, most densely written opera. Its menace stems from much more than the large orchestra and chorus, though their weight is deployed overpoweringly at such moments as the muster before the execution scene. [...] The only escape from oppression and violence lies in the sweet, hopeless shanties and the promise of action against the enemy.
Although Billy Budd is, in Evans's words, "at the furthest remove from chamber opera," its unusual restriction to the male vocal range does help Britten create the obsessive atmosphere of a ship at sea. An interesting comparison to this opera, whose action takes place on an English naval ship in the summer of 1797 (according to Vere's epilogue), can be found in Peter Weir's movie Master and Commander: From the Far Side of the World (2003). Based on the series of novels by Patrick O'Brian, the action takes place on the HMS Surprise, an English naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars, some time around 1805.

In Billy Budd, the important figures on HMS Indomitable are her captain, Edward Fairfax Vere (nicknamed "Starry Vere" by his adoring crew), cast by Britten as an idealistic tenor, the role created by Britten's partner, Peter Pears (see Kenneth Green's Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, from 1943). He is assisted by First Lieutenant Mr. Redburn and Second Lieutenant Mr. Ratcliffe. The captain relies on two officers to manage the ship: the Sailing Master (Mr. Flint), who oversees the crew's handling of the boat; and the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart (a sininster 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 opposed representatives of the two poles of the male voice.
Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and John Culshaw
The opera's prologue shows Captain Vere as an old man, remembering the events recounted in the opera. Vere is a noble ideal, an honorable man lost in his genteel system, who cannot do the right thing to defend Billy from Claggart. When Billy is told he has been appointed foretopman, he exuberantly bids farewell to his old ship, the Rights o' Man. The officers think 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, which the officers in Billy Budd call 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. He sends the grovelling Squeak to make Billy's life difficult. Later, Claggart rips Billy's scarf from his throat, growling that it is inappropriate attire for the ship ("This is a man-o'-war").

The classically educated Vere is seen reading Plutarch in his cabin. He 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. In spite of the suspicion of his officers, Vere thinks that Billy cannot possibly mean any harm, as they listen to the echos of the innocent sea shanties being sung in the crew's quarters below. The joy of the shanty singing is interrupted by Billy's stammer, his only flaw, of which the sailors are superstitiously wary. Billy catches Squeak trying to steal his belongings and fights with him, knocking him down as Claggart arrives on the scene. When Billy's story is corroborated, Claggart handcuffs and gags Squeak and has to let Billy go free. He makes a veiled but threatening remark to Billy ("Handsomely done, lad; and handsome is as handsome did it, too") and even lashes a boy who stumbles against him on the way out.

Claggart then 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 he established, "an order such as reigns in Hell." In an interesting gloss on 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.) The novice Claggart had flogged for bumping into him becomes his lackey (in a dark moment, the boy confides to Claggart, "you said you'd protect me, spoke so fatherly to me when you found me crying"). Claggart sends him to tempt Billy to do something illegal. Although the novice is heartbroken about it ("Why had it to be Billy, the one we all love?"), he feels he has to do it. The stage is set for the tragic ending.