Beyond the narrative thread of the Opera Billy Budd, the musical sheet of the Composer Bejamin Britten is an incredible drama about unsolved feelings which float through time. The opera was written for a cast of men only, which makes it very peculiar because there aren't many examples. It is the very short novel of Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville, written in 1891, which looks like it was written be set to music because of the complexity of its themes: the loss of innocence and the search for it through rituals of purification; people's preconceives towards what is “different” and how it is often condemned by a too often corrupted or hypocritical society; the “duty” established by a superior order which brings people to act unfairly and the homosexual love, constantly regarded as wrong and perverted by society, the reason why Britten in his works has always tried to redeem. And then there's the sea all around it, which frames the solitary lives of the mariners. The story of Billy Budd summarizes Britten's idea of theatre: its moral mission. It is with this very opera, after its premiere in Covent Garden in 1951 that Benjamin Britten is officially labeled as the best English composer after Henry Purcell.
Synopsis Billy Budd
Captain Vere, as an old man, looks back on his life at sea and the mysterious workings of good and evil.
Aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable during the French Wars of 1797. Early in the morning, the crew is working. A cutter has been dispatched to board a passing merchantman and recruit the most able men for war service. It now returns with three impressed sailors, among them Billy Budd, an open-hearted, good-natured young man who reveals a stammer when trying to explain that he was a foundling. His shout of farewell to his former ship, The Rights o’ Man, misleads the officers into believing that Billy is a potential source of danger in rousing dissent among the other sailors. They instruct Claggart to keep an eye on him. Left alone, Claggart orders the ship’s corporal Squeak to use every opportunity to provoke Billy. The old seaman Dansker warns Billy to beware of Claggart. In Captain Vere’s cabin, the officers express their dislike of the spirit of the French Revolution, which they hold responsible for the recent naval mutinies. They mention Billy as a potential troublemaker but Vere disagrees and tells them that he only has youthful high spirits. That same evening Billy discovers Squeak going through his belongings and attacks him. Claggart intervenes and, realizing his man has bungled things, has Squeak arrested. His hatred of Billy now is stronger than ever, and he forces the Novice to try and bribe Billy into leading a mutiny. But the Novice’s efforts only rouse Billy’s anger. Dansker appears and calms Billy down.
Some days later, the officers and the crew want to engage the enemy but the ship is shrouded in mist. When the air begins to clear, a French sail is sighted so the men prepare for battle. However, the wind drops and the mist returns, putting an end to the pursuit. Claggart approaches Vere with his complaint that Billy is planning a mutiny. Vere refuses to believe him and sends for Billy to confront his accuser. Alone in his cabin, Vere reflects on his conviction that the young sailor is innocent. Billy arrives, then Claggart, who repeats his charges. Asked to defend himself, Billy gets so upset that his stammer chokes him. He attcks Claggart and kills him on the spot. Vere, shocked, calls up his officers and constitutes a drumhead court. Billy admits his mistake but can’t understand why Claggart had accused him. When the officers turn to Vere for an explanation, the captain refuses to respond so the court pronounces the death sentence. The following morning, Billy contemplates his imminent death. Dansker appears with food and news that the ship is definitely close to mutiny, the crew is determined to prevent Billy’s execution but he tells them not to intervene since he has accepted his fate and Billy is hanged.
The old Vere is still plagued by doubt about the rightness of his actions. He knows that he could have saved Billy and feels guilty but the fact that Billy blessed him before being hanged comforts him.