Cher Public

Billy’s club

When Winston Churchill was First Sea Lord, the story goes, an indignant admiral accused him of violating British naval tradition, to which Churchill replied that the only traditions of the British Navy were rum, sodomy and the lash. Churchill later denied he’d ever said this; he did say he wished he had. Certainly that had been the tradition of the navy in 1797, as depicted by Benjamin Britten in Billy Budd, his opera of 1951, now being superbly performed (twice more: Tuesday and Thursday) at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in a snappy Michael Grandage production touring from the Glyndebourne Festival. 

The occasion is subtly unlike the technological marvel John Dexter created for the Met in 1978. That overwhelming design with its multiple stage elevators presents the H.M.S. Indomitable as a vast and airy yacht whereon it might be pleasant to cruise the Channel and perhaps romance the Captain’s sister, cousin or aunt. Christopher Oram’s set at BAM is equally nautical, but we are deep within the cramped hull, mostly below decks with the rebellious riffraff, and this emphasizes the claustrophobic plot.

Angelic Billy atop the mizzenmast may rejoice in the tiny deck below him against the vast sea, but diabolical “Jemmy Legs” lurks below and cannot be avoided forever. Tormented, idealistic Captain Vere, theoretically absolute sovereign of his “little piece of earth,” will prove helpless to protect virtue from vice when fear enters the picture. There has been a mutiny in the British Navy recently, and revolution in France—to say nothing (and no one mentions it) of successful revolt in the American colonies.

What the British sailors, officers and otherwise, feel they need is warlike action. Here Britten, the bitter pacifist, lays on his scorn with an ironic trowel: His rituals of battle and (later) execution are parodies of the sumptuous military display in a hundred grand operas, but here they accompany not nationalistic triumph but a pointless, one-shot standoff and, later, the execution of an innocent man.

The smaller size of the BAM opera house and the menacing set with its looming galleries and distant shadows have the effect of bringing the opera’s action closer to us. Too, the cast’s fine diction reaches out to us and we require subtitles only for the bits of old nautical slang. (The titles are turned off for Vere’s haunted prologue and epilogue; Mark Padmore, as Vere, brings out every syllable.) The crew on deck or in quarters have never seemed so cramped, and there were hisses of indrawn breath around me during our close, abrupt look at the Novice (a lively Peter Gijsbertsen) after his back has taken twenty lashes.

We are close enough to feel the seething malice of the Master-at-Arms, John “Jemmy Legs” Claggart (Brindley Sherratt). This Claggart does not merely haunt the decks with stance and walk; he leans into the necks of his victims as if intending to sink his fangs, and when he addresses his minion, Squeak (Colin Judson), his growling, prowling bass produces an appropriate high-pitched sound. Why clobber the fellow when a taunt will do the job? In his lowest tones, Sherratt appeared to be prodding the depths for diabolic companionship.

One has seen taller, handsomer Billys than Jacques Imbrailo, but he acted tall, sweet and sure of his simple view of the world, so that one understood his being an object of general affection. His light baritone took on the colors of exultation for his song to the birds and of despair for “Billy in the Darbies.” If this soliloquy was not as dulcet as it has been heard, it was sung and acted with utter conviction, from thought to uneasy thought. Besides, his hands were bound behind him. We felt as one with the broken Dansker (Jeremy White), who represents the crew making a personal farewell to Billy.

The staging was full of small, vivid touches, bringing forward scenes one could miss in a larger production and theater: Duncan Rock attempting to comfort his whipped friend the Novice, Billy’s naïve delight in his new surroundings, the riot that nearly breaks out among the sailors when Billy swings from the yardarms. The crispness of natural movement, the energy of the staging contrasted with the rather flaccid habit the Met’s production has fallen into in recent revivals. The atmosphere was not merely described (“I don’t like the look of the mist,” says Captain Vere firmly, referring by indirection to the moral dilemma in which he will shortly find himself), but fills the stage.

Characters loom like specters from the shadowy fog: sinister Claggart, his tyrannized toadies and—stunningly, disturbingly—Vere himself, behind Billy in the Darbies, hatless and among the crowd of sailors rather than uniformed with the officers above. Vere is already a ghost of himself, beginning to realize the extent of his sin and betrayal. Padmore acts his Pilate role with rigid dignity. His singing, dry to begin with (perhaps to imply his age, looking back on these events decades later), attains a liquid, soaring quality in Act II.

The position of the orchestra below and around the set rather than in front of it brings forth its function as accompanist to a lieder-like score. Brasses loom ominously around Claggart (as if he carried their sound in the shadows of his uniform) as he stands on a deck to accuse Billy to Vere. The stuttering percussion that accompanies Billy’s verbal tic seems to float in the air around him. The lulling dream music that is Billy rocking in his hammock will return on his final night. The buzzing flutes might be birds whirring in the air and the saxophones hum as if from an overheated cellar. When Vere points out to his officers that the men are singing (“Singing men are happy men,” he insists), their voices emerge from the very cabin floor.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra was led by Sir Mark Elder, whom I last heard in a set of sparkling Tannhäusers at the Met in 2004. He brought the same polished clarity, precision and propulsion to this wonderful Billy Budd.

Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

  • alejandro

    I will be there tomorrow night! So excited. This is one of my top 10 operas.

  • Krunoslav

    Thanks! I also enjoyed it, though the actual sound of Imbrailo’s voice, after all the hype, reminded me of the Lemalu debut. However, he clearly knows how to phrase, and it may well be that the indisposition that barred him from the dress continued on Friday.

    But I thought Duncan Rock and David Soar--MUCH better than at *his* Met Masetto debut-- sounded the best. Padmore was in many ways admirable, but in the current critical lionization of him, writers seem to have forgotten about Rolfe Johnson and Langridge who ALSO sang Grimes and Vere with great delicacy and carity — but sounded far better under tonal pressure than does Padmore, who really only produces a distinguished sound below mezzoforte.

    Very interesting staging-- sunless!

    As for the American Revolution, it is in fact mentioned obliquely in relation to “The Rights of Man” -- Billy’s former ship, named after Thomas Paine’s 1791 book, very well known--notorious in fact-- in Britain then. I always wonder-- even if Billy is too simple to understand why he is yelled at for bidding “The Rights of Man” farewell, wouldn’t any one of those very attentive officers have noticed/recalled that that was the name of the pressgang-boarded ship, as indeed mentioned by Mr. Ratcliffe a few minutes before?

    • Look, Captain Vere hasn’t a clue that his master-at-arms, dressed and made up as a silent movie Mephisto, is going around bribing, flogging and cornholing the entire crew of his ship, The vessel should be renamed the HMS Oblivious.

      • Henry Holland

        I get it, La Cieca, you don’t like this opera, that was made clear when there was a discussion about it a few months ago, but your comment has no basis in what actually happens in the opera.

        Of course Vere knows what Claggart is up to, he simply thinks he can control him, with disastrous consquences. From the start of the original second act (scene two in the revision):

        FIRST LIEUTENANT: We are, sir. Claggart is an able man.
        VERE: He is a veritable Argus.
        FIRST LIEUTENANT: Beg pardon, sir?
        VERE: He has a hundred eyes.

        Later, after the failed attempt on the French boat, there’s these statements:

        VERE: Mutiny? Mutiny?
        I’m not to be scared by words.
        Your evidence for this?

        VERE: How came the boy by gold? -- a common seaman?
        Strange story. What’s his name?

        VERE: Nay! you’re mistaken.
        Your police have deceived you.
        Don’t come to me with so foggy a tale.
        That’s the young fellow I get good reports of.


        Hardly sounds like a man who “hasn’t a clue”.

        • Vere doesn’t have a clue that Claggart is having men flogged for accidentally falling down on deck, and he thinks the information he is getting from Claggart is accurate and useful. In fact, Claggart is deliberately setting up crewmen he doesn’t happen to like to appear guilty of various transgressions, and it is this information that he is delivering to Vere, and Vere (in general) laps it up. One time Vere sees through an obvious and transparent lie but the rest of the time he’s been buying Claggart’s lies. (Maybe if the captain didn’t spend his whole career in his cabin reading the classics…)

          If Vere wants to control Claggart, why doesn’t he, oh, just spitballing here, stop him from flogging innocent men and instigating knife fights below deck? Or is Vere all like, “let’s just watch and see where this is going?”

          • grimoaldo

            “(Maybe if the captain didn’t spend his whole career in his cabin reading the classics…)”

            Well I have always thought that that is indeed one of the points being made and I think that although the opera is an adaptation of an American classic it is about British men and Melville, adapted by Forster, is very much aware, as virtually everything ever written in Britain has been, of social class.
            De Vere is upper or upper middle class, he is the ruler of his ship, like the King, he does spend his time in his cabin reading the classics, he lets his chief of police, Claggart, do his job without asking too many questions,that is why he feels guilty about Billy after his death, he should have paid more attention to what was going on.

          • Henry Holland

            Vere doesn’t have a clue that Claggart is having men flogged for accidentally falling down on deck

            There’s nothing in the libretto to suggest anything of the sort. A British man o’war wasn’t a modern aircraft carrier, they were fairly small, “a floating republic”. There were 200+ men cramped together for weeks and months on end. Vere wouldn’t have heard about that from one of his officers or a sailor in passing or even from his cabin boy? C’mon.

            Vere (in general) laps it up

            Right, because all those instances I posted above (and there’s more) show Vere was just a naive sap who read too much Plutarch, a sap who was being played by a social and intellectual inferior, not the commanding officer of a man o’ war in a bitter existential struggle against an old enemy. C’MON.

            he lets his chief of police, Claggart, do his job without asking too many questions,that is why he feels guilty about Billy after his death, he should have paid more attention to what was going on

            Agree. It’s one thing to be cynically unaware of the nasty things a minion is doing for you if it helps one keep power, control and authority --I believe the phrase is “plausible deniability”-- and quite another to be totally clueless of that minions actions.

            • So have have an opera about a monster, a worse monster, and an idiot everyone thinks is Jesus because he has a cute ass. Oh, now I see why I’m supposed to like this show.

            • armerjacquino

              Easy to play the reduction game. TOSCA is an opera about a monster and two idiots. It’s still pretty good.

            • Tosca doesn’t begin and end with the main character lecturing us on the nature of good and evil. In other words, Billy Budd sets itself up as a moral parable of some sort, not a melodrama. If the payoff after three hours in the theater is that some elderly ponce warbles at me a sermon about salvation and “a land where I’ll anchor forever,” then I expect that “salvation” to be earned, if not morally, at least dramatically. Tosca at least honestly presents itself as a thrill ride; Billy Budd sets you up to think there is something important thematic happening, and then fobs you off by giving the composer’s boyfriend a reprise of the baritone’s best tune.

              It’s funny you should bring up Puccini, because La fanciulla del West is very much about the belief in redemption, and in that opera we don’t have have Minnie or Jack Rance come back to us in pitiful old age makeup to explain to us the moral of the story; instead we see it enacted.

              There are a number of Britten operas I like a lot, but I just can’t get my head around Billy Budd. It makes no sense to me at all.

            • grimoaldo

              I think a lot of your objections to the opera apply to the original Melville novella --
              Vere says in the moments following Claggart’s death, “Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!
              and other adaptations of it also including an award winning Broadway play in 1949 and a film with Terence Stamp as Billy and Peter Ustinov as Vere --

              I find this comment a bit odd --
              “fobs you off by giving the composer’s boyfriend a reprise of the baritone’s best tune.”
              Is there something wrong with Britten having written leading roles in his operas for his boyfriend? The Britten-Pears partnership has always been an inspiration to me.

            • The “Melville novella” is an unfinished work cobbled together by various editors into a number of widely divergent realizations. The opera is supposed to be a finished and “fixed” work and as such presumably should not be allowed the same sort of latitude for being contradictory and vague as a boxful of scribbled notes Melville never got around to making any sense out of.

              I do get the impression that Britten was, consciously or unconsciously, shaping the material into a vehicle that would best showcase Pears. Melville last shows Vere babbling drugged on his deathbed; Forster/Britten afford him the dignity of expostulating on the nature of good and evil and the vocal plum of a reprise of a big soaring tune, solo in a spotlight. This makes no moral sense and as a dramatic effect it’s cheap and sentimental and utterly alien to what is in Melville. So I can’t help thinking it amounts to an interpolated star turn for the composer’s boyfriend, because what’s the alternative? That Forster and Britten deliberately distorted and cheapened Melville to assure the success of their opera?

            • Henry Holland

              Oh, now I see why I’m supposed to like this show

              So why should I give a damn about what happens to Ot(h)ello in Verdi’s opera? He’s a crude, brutal military man who is portrayed as a great leader who then completely falls apart over a fucking handkerchief and murders his wife before committing suicide, sobbing his little eyes out all the while.

              Woohoo! The reduction game is FUN.

            • Yes, Henry, the fact that Otello makes moral and aesthetic sense while Billy Budd enters into the equation not at all. (Right now I’m envisioning a version of Otello that finishes with the Moor turning to the audience and whining, “I could have saved her! I could have saved her! Ah, Emilia addio, Emilia addio!…”)

      • papopera

        Oh thank you Dear for cornholing. I didn’t know how to say “enculer ” in English. Merci.

    • Loge

      The Rights of Man refers to the Paine’s pamphlet but it also refers to the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man. Since the enemy during this opera was France, Billy’s reference to the Rights of Men could have been interpreted as sympathy toward the enemy.

  • Ilka Saro

    I agree with John Y on most points. I love this opera to begin with, and it was fantastic to see it on a smaller stage, in a smaller house than the Met.

    I can’t comment on Imbrailo, as I saw the final dress rehearsal when Imbrailo was ill, and Duncan Rock stepped in for him, and completely stole my heart away.

    Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) has the kind of voice I always look forward to. Right from the get-go, out poured a dark, rich sound. And he had very solid low notes for Claggart’s low low signature motif (as in the phrase “Let him crawl.”)

    I only have one criticism of the staging, which was that the battle scene (“This is the moment we’ve been waiting for”) ended up looking like something out of Babes in Toyland, with the marines marching in place down front while the flag billowed and fluttered in the back. One half expected Shirley Temple to salute from their shoulders. It seemed very out of place in the otherwise taut, economical staging.

    • Regina delle fate

      Haha -- Duncan Rock upstaged the Billy Budd (whom he was understudying) in David Alden’s more recent staging for ENO, as Donald, and we were all hoping he might step up to the title role for one performance. But you have seen a sneak preview of his official debut in the role, next season in Frankfurt’s Richard Jones’s production which is set in a rigorous 1950s naval academy, more spectacular than Grandage’s and less literal.

      • Ilka Saro

        Duncan Rock is a pearl of great price. There are no more like him, your honor.

        He has a very very beautiful voice, too, to go with the overall strapping/dashing/ready-for-action package. I don’t think it’s really a criticism to say that the part’s high passages in the first act were harder to hear because of the super-dense orchestrations (parts like “Billy Budd king of the birds”). I could hear Rock just fine, but the beautiful of his upper voice was lost in the waves of sound coming from the pit. In Billy in the Darbies I could hear him better and I wanted the phrases to be even longer than they already are, because Rock’s voice had such a sweet sheen.

  • Ilka Saro

    Ok here’s a question about this opera: What’s up with Red Whiskers?

    At first, he is an honest tradesman who is objecting to being pressed into “service” on the Indomitable. And when he first sees the novice has been flogged, he repeats all his objections before suddenly shifting gear to “I give no offense, I get no punishment”. That transition is understandable.

    By the end of the Act, though, he is frolicking below decks with the best of them, knows a chanty or two, and exhorts Dansker to join in. In the second act, he volunteers to board the French ship. Hardly the behavior of a lubber.

    So I wonder, is he actually a sailor, and the whole “I’m an honest tradesman. I’ve a wife and family” just an act to avoid being pressed when he wants to spend some time on shore?

    • Henry Holland

      My take: he had enough smarts to know it was adapt or die. Having been stuck more than once in a situation I didn’t want to be in, with people I didn’t really like, it’s sometimes easier to just fit and survive than it is to complain and alienate oneself.

      Plus, having been born and grown up on military bases, I guarantee you that people can switch gears from being the nicest person you’ve ever met to “Kill them all and let God sort ’em out” at the blink of an eye.

      • Orlando Furioso

        A strong second for Henry Holland’s first paragraph. I noticed the change of attitude for Red Whiskers early in my acquaintance with the opera, but it struck me as the adaptation of someone who finds himself in an unwelcome but unescapable situation.

        It reminded me of my time in Army Basic Combat Training (I know…). I hated being there, but fitting in and getting along (and grabbing such moments of relaxation and cameraderie as I could) served me better than complaining.

        • Henry Holland

          After I first got in to Britten’s great opera, I read up a bit on the British military and the British navy around the time the opera takes place. In the context of 2014, to say that life in 1797 on those ships was horrible, nasty, brutish and often short is an understatement. If you weren’t killed in action or beaten to death by one of the officers, you’d be dead from dysentery or some other disease. And the “food”, EWWWWWWWWW.

          It’s why my Dad chose the Air Force, it was the most “civilized” of the services.

    • It may be a purely practical matter: you’ve already gone and hired a soloist for a role that is basically relevant only to the first scene of the opera. So here’s this voice and this personality, and you don’t want to waste that. So he’s given solos in the chanty and so forth.

  • Dolciamente Pipo

    There’s a lot that I love about this opera…the orchestration, the use of the chorus…there’s a lot to admire. I always feel that I’m with it right up until Vere’s epilogue…and then it totally loses me. It’s not the “obliviousness” that I find problematic. He was obviously letting other people do his dirty work for the supposed greater good of king and country. As to the “cornholing”,there are any number of examples where those who should know about predatory sexuality turn a blind eye…google Sandusky. No. What really infuriates me about the handling of Vere is that he gets this big epiphany both textually and orchestrally at the end that, at least as far as I’m concerned, is completely unearned. It surprises me that Britten, being the ardent pacifist that he was, lets Vere off the hook in this way. After all, what happens to Billy is not the only atrocity that occurs aboard the Indomitable. What about ALL those men subjugated into service and beaten into submission? Surely Britten didn’t feel that this particular war was worth that. I would feel a lot more sympathy for Vere if, at the end of his life, he seemed to have an awareness of the bigger picture, if he realized that ALL the values he upheld were false. That the execution of Billy was just the one manifestation of a deeply corrupt system…of which he was the leader. I keep waiting for him to get there and he never does. I don’t understand why at the end he merits a “blessing”? Blessed for what exactly?? Can someone explain?

    • Donna Anna

      You pose a question that I grapple with every time I see this opera. Melville’s story ends with Vere’s death in battle with a French ship and his last words are “Billy Budd!” The British Naval Gazette publishes the incident with Claggart and Billy as Claggart nobly defending martial law and being murdered by a mutineer.

      I find the ending another of Britten’s attempts to relieve a moral outrage with the promise of Christian salvation. Believing that Billy blesses him is the only way Vere can assuage his guilt, which isn’t far off from how Britten ended The Rape of Lucretia--the Male Chorus singing about Jesus’s death redeeming pain, which always makes me grit my teeth. The St. Louis production back in 1993(crikey, is it really 21 years ago?)ended powerfully: as staged by Colin Graham, Vere (Peter Kazaras) was losing control physically, if not mentally. Vere ended his epilogue with his mouth bobbing up and down, something I’ve observed in people with dementia. Those last lines clearly provided no comfort and may have been forgotten as soon as they were sung.

      • I find the ending another of Britten’s attempts to relieve a moral outrage with the promise of Christian salvation.

        I ask for information. Is this an Anglican thing, specifically I mean, this notion that there is evil, evil, evil, horrible things happening to nice people, do you think we maybe ought to do something, nah, just sit back and let the evil happen, because sooner or later Christ is going to die and that’s going to reset everything.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

        • manou

          Yes, but will evil be a person of small stature with a caudal appendage?

        • hawksmoor

          Britten’s Captain Vere has always frustrated me, because he just stands there while his officers seem the ones taking the harsh view, but this in fact is the opposite of what happens in Melville’s novella, where Vere uses his logic, and frankly his authority, to block all their humane considerations at every turn. (“Can we not convict and yet mitigate the penalty?” asked the junior Lieutenant here speaking, and falteringly…) It would have been a simple matter to jail Billy until they got back to land and have the proper channels there deal with him, but no, Vere is in such a confounded HURRY to hang Billy that the ship’s surgeon actually fears he may be insane. Melville’s main question, his ambiguous question, is WHAT IS VERE THINKING? And why? Billy represents good, Claggart evil, so they don’t interest Melville as much as a man whose motives are beyond us, a moral dilemma more terrifying because it is more common, more slippery, more elusive--elusive in the way that God in the Book of Job is slippery and elusive. Britten fudges all this by making us sympathetize with Vere and by having him washed in the blood of the lamb at the end. Billy forgives Vere, but should WE? God bless you Billy, you’re loveable, but you’re a simpleton at sea among very scary people--Claggart being only the most obvious. “God Bless Captain Vere!” Billy, you idiot. God will no doubt bless Captain Vere--but what kind of God?

        • grimoaldo

          No La C “never mind that evil things happen, Christ’s death will fix it all” is not a specifically Anglican thing.
          It is hard to say what is “a specifically Anglican thing”, probably it would include the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
 “a four-point articulation of Anglican identity, often cited as encapsulating the fundamentals of the Communion’s doctrine” and none of those say anything about “we don’t have to worry about evil in the world, Christ’s death will redeem it and us”.

          • Krunoslav

          • oedipe

            No La C “never mind that evil things happen, Christ’s death will fix it all” is not a specifically Anglican thing.

            Absolutely! The idea of communal redemption through the sacrifice of a scapegoat is as ancient as human society!

            The novelty that Christianity brought with it -and this is not a specifically Anglican thing- is the communal realization that Christ was innocent, and that his murder DID NOT fix it all; it was the realization that the scapegoat in human sacrifice is and has ALWAYS been innocent and thus its murder -the communally sanctioned killing of an innocent- cannot “redeem it and us”.

      • Henry Holland

        The St. Louis production back in 1993(crikey, is it really 21 years ago?)

        Great production, the choral singing was incredible too, especially in that small theater. Plus, they used the 4 act version, the scene in Act I that was cut in the revision was really powerful.

        I find the ending another of Britten’s attempts to relieve a moral outrage with the promise of Christian salvation

        But in the case of Billy Budd that promise is shown to be pretty delusional on Vere’s part.

        At the end of the War Requiem, after the two soldiers meet in the afterlife, there’s a section that seems to promise that salvation as well. Here’s a good explanation of why it’s not as simple as that:

        For these soldiers in the foxholes, sleep is but a brief respite from the finality of death; there is no step into eternal life on that killing field


        The last musical notes of the piece, however, are the familiar tritone interval resolving to an F major chord, creating a question. Musically, emotionally, spiritually, and existentially we are left unsettled, unresolved, our longings for any kind of lasting peace unsated

        For me, it’s clear that Vere is trying to convince himself of his own salvation, via Billy’s “blessing” but the music says “Not so fast there, Captain…..”.

    • Belfagor

      That’s exactly why I resist this opera -- Vere’s behaviour has never quite made sense to me, and the big crashing Bb major peroration/affirmation in the Epilogue is really undeserved -- I always come out of a performance feeling mutinous, depressed and wondering why Britten/Forster have told us this tale, whereas great tragedies have a cathartic, exhilarating edge to them -- this one is merely a downer.

      • oedipe

        great tragedies have a cathartic, exhilarating edge to them

        I think that, after WW2, this kind of cathartic tragedy has become the exception rather than the rule in all domains of art (with the possible exception of Hollywood).

        • Belfagor

          Interesting point -- in terms of opera, I actually find ‘Die Soldaten’ cathartic, I think it’s to do with the real violence of the sounds we hear, it’s kind of bracing, though its not my sort of piece -- ‘Carmelites’ certainly is.

          Maybe it’s Britten in general: I can’t remember who wrote (I paraphrase clumsily), Verdi’s tragedies reflect the world is a terrible dangerous place, Puccini tortures his heroines just because he is a sadist. I feel that Britten just plays the masochist -- he never exorcised that ultra-repressed terrified schoolboy at the heart of things……there’s a slight prurience at watching the destruction of Billy that makes me squirm……

          Don’t get that feeling at the end of ‘Grimes’ at all, I much prefer that piece, even though the music maybe is not as sophisticated……

      • Henry Holland

        I looked at the piano/vocal score last night and the opera ends with a Bb chord that slowly fades out. However, the melody line that the text

        long ago now, years ago, centuries ago, when I, Edward Fairfax Vere, commanded the “Indomitable”…

        is set to largely avoids simply outlining the Bb chord, it has augmented 5ths and so on, plus it ends with the words “commanded the Indomitable” on a D, it never resolves to a Bb. It’s a common thing in Britten, I mentioned the War Requiem in another post using a similar technique.

        Yes, the music seems to say “Behold this great man” but like a lot of Britten, in the final moments any sense of redemption or catharsis is rendered ambiguous.

        wondering why Britten/Forster have told us this tale, whereas great tragedies have a cathartic, exhilarating edge to them — this one is merely a downer

        That’s one of the reasons I love it, it *doesn’t* have a “cathartic, exhilarating edge”, which so often feel tacked on to me, as if the composer/librettists or in another medium, the screenwriters/directors think “Crap! We can’t send the audience home depressed!”.

        I’ve long felt that’s one of the reasons Britten’s operas aren’t more popular with the general opera audience is if looked at a certain way his operas. apart from Albert Herring (and even that has it’s sad moments) really are sad and depressing. For *me*, that’s a recommendation!

        The told the tale because it’s right in line with Britten’s pre-occupations: the corruption of innocence (the boys in Grimes; Miles in ATOTS); how basically good people make terrible decisions that adversely affect others (Balstrode and Ellen in Grimes, Vere, Kate in Owen Wingrave); how society preys on and destroys its weak and outsiders etc.

        Interesting point — in terms of opera, I actually find ‘Die Soldaten’ cathartic

        Yes, that sound you hear is BA Zimmermann spinning in his grave! :-)

        • Belfagor

          No it’s not a question of ‘We can’t send the audience home depressed’ -- that’s too black and white -- I would say that Othello, King Lear and Macbeth hardly pull their punches in the tragedy department, or any of the ancient Greek tragedies, or the great operatic tragedies -- Boris, Kata Kabanova, Otello, Don Carlo, Traviata -- name your favorites! -- in those it’s a kind of collective suffering by empathy, one is devastated (hopefully) but somehow purged -- I unconsciously know why I’m being told these stories because they confront primal fears and enable me to transcend them by witnessing the worst of all worlds. In ‘Budd’ I don’t know why I’m being asked to witness this -- I just come away thinking the creators are not quite clear in their own intent, and I’ve witnessed something I can’t learn anything from.

          I’m not expressing this well -- it’s a gut feeling, beyond mere words.

          • Hanna

            It´s a gut feeling I share. I really want to love the opera, and I do love the first part -- “Billy Budd, King of the birds” perfectly captures the feeling of skylarking on the fore royal yard on a bright summer day with a nice topsail breeze. Britten and the sea, a perfect combination. However, at the end I just want to strangle Vere and no Bb chord in the world can atone for his whining and faux-moralising (for me).

          • Henry Holland

            I’ve witnessed something I can’t learn anything from

            Don’t trust people in power to have your best interests at heart? Compromising one’s morals is a path to failure? Military life is hideous? Life really is nasty, brutish and short so make the most of it? Relying on religion as a salve to your conscience rarely works?


            • Belfagor

              Well, yes, of course, I can rationalize it intellectually, which is not quite the point of an operatic experience if it leaves me cold, and unconvinced at the end. That’s all.

              Chacun a son gout

            • MontyNostry

              I’ve only seen Billy Budd once, but I found that by far the most involving and effective scene was the big boat chase, where they keep losing sight of the French ship. It was genuinely operatic. I’m never quite so sure Britten is so good when it comes to feelings!

            • But the battle is essentially a divertissement, a big choral scene with spectacle that accomplishes nothing dramatically or thematically. So it’s sort of like going to Aida for the ballet.

            • MontyNostry

              That was sort of the point I was trying to make, La Cieca. He’s rather good at the sort of Meyerbeer stuff, but not so good at creating characters I want to empathise with.

  • alejandro

    I loved loved loved this last night. I felt the three leads were wonderful. My only quibble was I wanted more from Imbrailo vocally for his “Rights O’ Man” bit at the beginning . . . but he was on fire for Billy in the Darbies. I was expecting Padmore to sound pinched and nasal and small, so I was surprised by his very impassioned singing. Brindley Sherratt was a great Claggart. Wonderful rich bass although at times I wish his diction had been a bit better. He never sang N sounds if he could help it.

    Interesting the debates above. I am very biased with this piece. I was asked to adapt some Melville for the stage and I wrote a 1 act contemporary retelling of Billy Budd. I loved the Melville, but more significantly, I loved the opera when I discovered it via a DVD of Britten conducting it for the BBC. There are so many layers to it--political, sexual, spiritual--that appeal to me. Claggart has always terrified and fascinated me . . . and last night I saw how Vere was equally fascinating. Both men could have been moved by love and instead chose to destroy.

    • CarlottaBorromeo

      Britten didn’t conduct the BBC film of Billy Budd -- it was Charles Mackerras

      • alejandro

        You are correct. My bad. I have no idea why I thought Britten had conducted it.

  • Batty Masetto

    Put me down firmly on the side of ambiguity. No time to work this up rigorously or in detail, but a couple of points at least:

    Vere may be something of a raisonneur, but he isn’t held up as a hero. He himself acknowledges that he failed in the crunch. (“I could have saved him.”) He certainly isn’t what Billy and the men make of him, and at least by the time the opera opens, he knows it. He is a fallible, guilt-ridden man who was presumptuous enough to think he could control a power greater than himself. (That’s why we fade out on “commanded the Indomitable.”)

    Oedipe is absolutely right (welcome back, Oedipe le Bon!) that the myth is much deeper and more ancient than Christianity. The innocent victim who gives life goes back at least to Osiris. Purely along this somewhat allegorical reading, which isn’t the only possibility at all, Billy is a manifestation of the indomitable Good, which we can interpret in endless ways.

    He’s not all-pardoning – he doesn’t pardon Claggart. But he does pardon Vere. Vere’s “salvation” lies partly in the knowledge that he hasn’t killed the Good and that instead the Good has given him some (qualified) relief from the burden of his guilt, a limited lease on life, if you will. The limitation is important. Remember, he’s the one who’s telling us this story. And any redemption that has happened clearly hasn’t fixed much. It hasn’t made him a saint and it hasn’t improved conditions out there on board the ships.

    So what is that big glowing chord about? Partly hope, it seems to me. But I don’t recall any mention of getting him into heaven; whatever deliverance happens (and again, it’s only limited) is secular. But that glowing chord does mean it has an emotional reality and provides a measure of real consolation.

    Socrates says the love of the beautiful leads us to want to create. Vere hasn’t done much that’s creative, except for one thing: he tells the story. In that sense he keeps Billy alive, even as he also perpetuates the shame of his own failure.

    • Henry Holland

      Great post, would love to see more of your thoughts.

    • oedipe

      The innocent victim who gives life goes back at least to Osiris.

      Yes, Osiris and also Zagreus, Attis, Adonis, Zalmoxis…
      And Orpheus; not the one who went to Hadès to rescue Euridyce, but the Orpheus who created the Orphic religion, a religion which had a remarkable resemblance to Christianity.

      This is a “foundation myth” and, like all foundation myths, it is universal and appears in slightly different forms (and is reenacted over and over again) in many cultures.

  • Dolciamente Pipo

    I agree. Great conversation! The big glowing chord does still somewhat bother me. Whether or not we believen in spiritual redemption, it does seem that Vere at least believe he’s been blessed by Billy, and therefore let off the hook. Ideally, I’d like him to realize the full scope of his culpability: that the whole system he supported was rotten. That would make it more truly tragic. But maybe that point is demonstrated in the piece itself.
    At the same time, I’m quite persuaded by Batty Masseto’s last comment regarding what actually happens in the score. The fact is that after the B-flat peroration, the music does return to unresolved bewilderment of “lost on the infinite sea”. Maybe we’re meant to believe that there is in the end no peace for Vere because he keeps going back to the beginning…he’s doomed to obsessively living this story over and over again in his head…which, far from redemption, is really it’s own kind of hell.

    • I’d like to see the final scene performed in a setting based on this passage in Melville’s Chapter 29:

      Not long before death, while lying under the influence of that magical drug which soothing the physical frame mysteriously operates on the subtler element in man, he was heard to murmur words inexplicable to his attendant--“Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” That these were not the accents of remorse, would seem clear from what the attendant said to the Indomitable’s senior officer of marines who, as the most reluctant to condemn of the members of the drum-head court , too well knew, tho’ here he kept the knowledge to himself, who Billy Budd was.

      The B-flat major chord could coincide with the attendant giving Vere a big whopping injection of morphine along about “Oh, what have I done?” That way the big B-flat chord signifies the physical ecstasy Vere was too narrow and constipated ever to hope to grasp in life. He thinks it’s a moment of religious transfiguration, but in fact it’s only all the endorphins in his brain firing at once as his breathing shuts down.

      I would also have the attendant, having given him the injection, leave the room, impatient with the old coot’s maunderings, so Vere could die absolutely alone with, for the first time in his life, a gigantic smile plastered across his face.

    • CarlottaBorromeo

      Well you may feel “the whole system… was rotten” and yet for all its inhumanities if helped preserve Europe from what would have been Napoleonic tyranny… ;-)