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Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Billy Budd  Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova  17-04-2015
Benjamin Britten
Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova

Benjamin Britten's life

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 in England in a family of four children. He was educated locally, and studied the piano and the viola from private teachers.
He began to compose at an early age and since he was only 10, he composed steadily until his death. At a concert in 1927 he met the composer Frank Bridge and showed him several of his compositions so that Bridge decided to take him on as a private pupil. After two years at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk, he entered the Royal College of Music in London (1930) where he studied composition with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. During his stay at the RCM he won several prizes for his compositions.
At a rehearsal for a broadcast performance of one of his work, A boy was born (1933), Britten met tenor Peter Pears, with whom he started a lifelong personal and professional relationship. In fact, many of Britten's solo songs, choral and operatic works, feature the tenor voice and were designated for Pears. From about 1935 until the beginning of World War II, Britten composed for the GPO Film Unit, for BBC Radio, and for small theatre groups in London. During this period he met and worked frequently with the poet W. H. Auden who provided texts for songs as well as complete scripts for which Britten provided incidental music. In the spring of 1939, Britten and Pears moved to North America. In 1941, Britten read an article on the English poet George Crabbe, which inspired him to write what became his first opera, Peter Grimes, which was complete in 1945 and had its premiere on June 7th of the same year by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company. During the early 40s, Britten produced a large number of works and other operas appeared regularly in the ensuing years. He died in 1976.

Britten's Operas

The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), The Little Sweep (1949), Billy Budd (1951) Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), Noye's Fludde ((1957), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), The Prodigal Son (1968) Owen Wingrave (1970) [for television], Death in Venice (1973).


Britten's Death in Venice

Death in Venice is the last masterpiece written by Benjamin Britten and it was first shown at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1973. The opera was conceived as a homage to his partner of a lifetime, the tenor Peter Pears. Obviously a subject like the one of Thomas Mann's short story was easy to strike an artist such as Britten, considering the theme: an out of reach Beauty, the one of the teenager Tadzio, as the background of a collapsing existence. Probably Britten, who died that very year, recognized himself in the story while he was writing it. A thin musical thread, refined and unsettle accompanies the story, turning it into one of the most important event. The music is typical of the second half of the Twentieth Century, where Britten stands out as one of the brightest composer, if not the brightest.

Britten's Billy Budd

Britten's opera is part of the English panorama of the end of the Nineteen Century, among other good works but definitely not stunning. Billy Budd is composed of a Prologue, two acts and an Epilogue and the libretto was written by Edward Morgan Forster and Eric Crozier. The work was commissioned by David Webster, Covent Garden's manager, who asked Britten to create something great for the opening of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The idea to adapt Melville's short novel came to Britten and Forster almost by chance. Since Forster didn't have much experience in writing librettos, he asked Crozier for help and together they wrote it almost entirely in prose. Forster's initial idea was to create a sort of manifesto for homosexual love, in order to destroy the usual image of perversion people associated with. However, Britten never shown much interest for this idea and never seemed to share the same enthusiasm. Although the story takes place entirely on the English vessel, the atmosphere evokes the one of the typical boarding school for boys in England at the end of '900. In the original version of 1951, the opera had 4 acts but Britten unified it into 2 in 1961, emphasizing the dramatic action. This last version is the one he chose for the recording of 1967. Britten's skill to move from one scene to another without breaking the narrative and musical flow is what makes it so fascinating. The premiere happened on the 1st of December 1951 and it received a great success. The Sunday Times described a public in tears when the curtain fell on the stage, however, many critics weren't avoided, mostly for the absence of female roles. The originality and greatness of this opera was from that moment never doubted.
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