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Operapedia: Billy Budd 

A primer on Britten’s symphonic drama of mutiny and murder.  by Henry Stewart. 

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The Basics

A self-loathing petty-officer tries to frame the title’s lovable conscript for mutiny, but Budd kills him in a rage and is unenthusiastically hanged for it.


W here It Is This Season

A new production in Madrid opens in January, followed by another in May, in Berlin. The work can be daunting to stage because of the surfeit of men required; the Met has sometimes offset it by producing in proximity Poulenc’s predominantly female Dialogues of the Carmelites.


Hit Tune

In Act II, the captive Budd sings a gentle aria, “Look, through the port comes the moonshine astray,” a sort of song to the moon about the death that awaits him come morning. It’s the opera’s hardest-to-shake piece of music, especially when sung by a great baritone such as Dwayne Croft, whose performance at the Met in 1997, preserved on video, was haunting. Most striking is the aria’s prominent piccolo, which dances around the vocal melody. Does it represent something? Moonlight? Budd’s intensifying angst? An angel in the ether pleading for patience? Whatever the case, it adds unearthly anxiety to a pretty melody.

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First Performances

Britten’s
sixth opera—but only his second full-scale effort—had its premiere at Covent Garden in December 1951, with the composer in the pit and his muse and de facto husband, Peter Pears, singing Captain Vere. Britten trimmed the four-act opera to two in 1960, and this version was first heard on the BBC the following year. (Its first staging, in 1964, was again at Covent Garden, conducted by Georg Solti.) The revision is usually performed today.


Time and Place

Billy Budd is a product of the gay closet,” Zachary Woolfe wrote in 2012 in TheNew York Times. “It is an opera composed by a closeted gay man, to a libretto written by [E. M.] Forster, a closeted gay man, based on a novella by a man [Herman Melville] who scholars often suggest was closeted.” The closeting was for good reason: homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967. Legendary computer scientist and Nazi-code breaker Alan Turing was prosecuted the year after Budd’s premiere for “gross indecency,” infamously choosing chemical castration as an alternative to prison, which some historians believe drove him to suicide in 1954.

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Spoiler Alerts

Claggart, the nasty master-at-arms hellbent on destroying Budd, recalls pettily motivated Shakespeare villains, such as Iago, who derives joy from bringing misery to others. But in Britten’s Budd, his inspiration is clearly the sourness sprung from the repression of sexual otherness. To underscore this tension, the burly opera features no roles for women or even high-pitched men. Budd is a baritone (the role made a star of its originator, Theodor Uppman), and so are seven other roles; there are also parts for five tenors, three basses and a bass-baritone, but no countertenors. The only high voices are supplied by boys.


Reactions

“Not the least remarkable thing about the new opera is the extraordinary delicacy and economy of the scoring,” Lord Harewood, the English opera administrator,wrote in opera news just weeks after the world premiere. “The more intimate scenes combine the subtleties one associates with chamber music with the imposing dimensions one expects in the largest opera houses—and in Billy Budd, make no mistake about it, there are no limitations of either emotional or dramatic scale.” Tell us how you really feel!


In Pop Culture

The prolific writer, actor and director Peter Ustinov helmed—and played Vere in—a movie of Melville’s novella the year after Britten’s revision first played on the radio. The film costarred Terence “General Zod” Stamp as Budd, in his first starring role—but included none of Britten’s music, though the composer had scored several films in the 1930s. The job instead went to Antony Hopkins—no, not Anthony Hopkins of Hannibal Lecter fame, who was then an unknown young actor in England, but a British film composer best known for, well, Billy Budd, actually.

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Something Completely Different

Copious excerpts from Budd appear on the soundtrack of Claire Denis’s 1999 loose retelling of the novella, Beau Travail, set among legionnaires stationed in the Horn of Africa. “Because the film is so closely tied to [Claggart]’s subjectivity, my first tendency is to read the music with some irony, as if this were exactly the kind of soundtrack—one full of epic Drama and Meaning—that [Claggart] himself would choose to score his inner life,” blogger Darren Hughes writes. “But the emotional effect of the music … is anything but ironic. In true Melvillian fashion, this is an epic battle of Drama and Meaning … the sturm and drang of Britten’s opera seems appropriately scaled for the images and emotions it accompanies.”


Surprise Showstopper

Melville writes that Claggart’s antipathy for Budd “partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual.” But the librettists turned this poison into something conspicuously sexual, first clearly stated in Claggart’s aria, which begins with a joke from Melville, repurposed: “Handsomely done my lad. / And handsome is as handsome did it, too.” The adaptors seize on “handsome,” making it the basis of a soliloquy about Claggart’s longing, curdled into cruelty: “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I had never seen you!… What choice remains to me? None, none! I’m doomed to annihilate you.” 


The Performance
We Wish We’d Seen

On October 18, 1952, American audiences first heard Budd when “scenes” from it were broadcast on NBC (which would devote only ninety minutes of airtime; hence the abridgment). “It was a revelation, critics agreed,” OPERA NEWS reported in March 1979. “And [conductor Peter Herman] Adler’s contention that TV opera held the key to America’s growing interest in the form had found a firm base on which to build.” The rest of that prestigious season of NBC Opera Theatre also featured Menotti’s now-classic Amahl and the Night Visitors, which NBC had commissioned and first aired the year before, and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahitispacer 

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