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BRITTEN’S BILLY BUDD: BRILLIANT MUSIC TO A BRILLIANT LIBRETTO

Basia Jaworski

billy-uppman


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.

billy-melville

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.

britten

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

Billy Budd is a role that is traditionally played by a (very) attractive singer. He has to be, he is not called a ‘beauty’ and a ‘baby’ for nothing. He is almost always put on the stage partially or even completely shirtless – no wonder that almost all of the baritones that are labeled as the ‘hottest’ have the role on their repertoire nowadays.

Britten himself is not entirely blameless in this. His very first Billy, Theodor Uppman, was personally selected by him for his exceptionally attractive appearance. Not that he couldn’t sing, on the contrary! The American baritone had a very pleasant, warm timbre, in which naivety went hand in hand with hidden sex appeal.

The world premiere took place on December 1, 1951 in the ROH in Covent Garden and the recording of it has fortunately been preserved (VAIA 1034-3). It is particularly fascinating to hear the voices of the singers for whom the opera was originally created.

The role of Captain Vere was written for Britten’s partner, Peter Pears. Not the most beautiful tenor voice in the world, but one with character, body and great ability to express things. The role of Claggart was sung by a good (but no more than that) Frederic Dalberg and in the smaller roles of Mr. Redburn and Mr. Flint we hear the future greats: Geraint Evans and Michael Langdon. The sound quality is amazingly good.

In 1952 Billy Budd was recorded with Upmann in the lead role for television. There is a video recording of it:

In the sixties Britten adapted and made his opera tighter: he turned the four acts into two. The new version had its premiere in 1964, under Georg Solti.

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