Billy Budd or innocence corrupted
Benjamin Britten’s work at the Opera Bastille
A parable of good and evil, desire and its suppression, Billy Budd counts among the masterpieces of Benjamin Britten and of 20th century opera. With The Indomitable, its gigantic ship, it returns to the stage of the Opera Bastille from April 24 through May 15 in a Francesca Zambello production that won the French Grand Prix des Critiques when it was first presented.
Melville’s short story presents a young and handsome sailor, Billy Budd, an angelic type who exerts a fascination over all the other characters, and to whom Claggart, the master at arms, has a strong aversion precisely because of his beauty and innate goodness, to the point of accusing him of fomenting a mutiny. Billy, who has been nicknamed “baby” by his crewmates ends up by accidentally killing Claggart and is sentenced to death under the indecisive regard of the ship’s captain, who is nonetheless convinced of the young man’s innocence. Without a doubt, it was primarily the story’s homosexual dimension that fascinated both Forster and Britten, who were both homosexual themselves along with their friends Auden and Isherwood. For in Melville’s text, if Claggart nurses such a hatred for Billy, it is, of course, because he feels irresistibly attracted by his beauty. As for the intellectual Vere, if he experiences less violent passions, he dreams of Billy “nude (…) as if posing for a statue of a young Adam”.
As such, Forster, Britten and Crozier picked up on this dimension and reflected it as far as it was possible to do so at the time. But for obvious reasons of censorship and because they did not want their work to be reduced to a single level of interpretation, they anchored it in the philosophical and moral parable depicted by Melville and which echoed the preoccupations of the composer since it enriched his entire body of work from Peter Grimes until Death in Venice: the notion of innocence battling against a hostile environment, the forces of Good corrupted by the forces of Evil (with the wholly platonic notion that Beauty could only be on the side of Good, and that a beautiful body could but reflect a beautiful soul). As such, the ship on which the story unfurls becomes a microcosm of society in which powerful antagonisms clash. The life of Billy, who when he feels accused suffers from a stammering fit that prevents him from defending himself, even resembles that of Christ taking on the sins of humanity and accepting his execution to save the world and mankind.
From a musical point of view, Billy Budd requires one of the largest orchestral ensembles ever employed by Benjamin Britten, with the exception of War Requiem. Given the subject, it has the distinctive characteristic of relying only on male voices, which could have engendered a certain monotony were it not for Britten's infinitely sensitive and subtle composition that constantly modifies the work's mood and feelings. Life on the ship and the claustrophobic atmosphere that reigns there, in particular, are depicted magnificently. Yet Britten, whose highly personal composition was enriched with references to Purcell and English folklore, as well as Verdi or Debussy, knew how to find the musical solution adapted to each situation. In this respect, the aria “Billy in irons”, just before his execution is incredibly apt and simple and is one of the most moving moments of the score.