Perfect goodness, does it have the right to exist? In his novel Billy Budd, Herman Melville set the absolute evil against the perfect goodness and made them perish both.
The story about the angelically beautiful, honest but oh so simple and naive Billy,
that takes place on a ship with only men and between men, has of course always had a double meaning. Some things could only be implied. Maybe that was a good thing, because it produced some real masterpieces.
One of them was a film by Peter Ustinov starring Terence Stamp.
Below is a trailer of the film:
And one of the best, at least for me, operas of the twentieth century.
For Benjamin Britten it was a rewarding theme. Elements such as the individual versus society, corruption, sadism, despair, a sense of responsibility and, of course, homo-eroticism were often used by him in his works. He was also able to include his pacifist ideas in them.
The story can be told quickly: Billy Budd is accused of treason by Claggart, the Master-at-Arms. He then strikes his accuser dead, and is sentenced to hang by Captain Vere. However, in the background, feelings of love, powerlessness and revenge play the real leading role.
For Claggart, the personification of evil, it is clear that he must destroy beauty, otherwise it will be his own downfall. “Having seen you, what choice remains to me? With hate and envy, I am stronger than love” he sings in his big, almost Iago-like aria ‘O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness’.
Captain Vere, aware of his true feelings for the young sailor, doesn’t have the courage to save his life. Only years later, looking back at the events of that time, he realizes that he should have acted differently.
WORLD PREMIERE 1951