Billy Budd
  • Benjamin Britten. Opera in four acts. 1951.
  • Revised version in two acts. 1960.
  • Libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, after Herman Melville’s story of the same title.
  • First performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, on 1st December 1951.
  • First performance of the revised version at the same theatre on 9th January 1964.
CHARACTERS

Captain Vere, commander of the Indomitable

tenor

Billy Budd, a sailor

baritone

John Claggart, master-at-arms

bass

Mr Redburn, first lieutenant

baritone

Mr Flint, sailing master

bass-baritone

Lieutenant Ratcliffe

bass

Red Whiskers, an impressed man

tenor

Donald, a sailor

baritone

Dansker, an old sailor

bass

Novice

tenor

Squeak, ship’s corporal

tenor

Bosun

baritone

First and Second Mates

baritones

Maintop

tenor

Novice’s friend

baritone

Arthur Jones, an impressed man

baritone

Four Midshipmen

trebles

Cabin boy

speaking part

Set on HMS Indomitable in 1797, during the French wars, the drama involves the relationship between Edward Fairfax Vere and the seaman Billy Budd, a sailor who has been taken to serve in the navy. Billy Budd, a character of radiant innocence, is in conflict with Claggart, the evil master-at-arms, who resolves to destroy him. Struck by Billy Budd, Claggart is killed and Captain Vere, who is aware of Billy Budd’s innate goodness and innocence, is compelled by duty to sentence him to death.

The opera, set on a warship, has only men in the cast. It deals, as so often in Britten’s operas, with the destruction of innocence, both that of the Novice, forced through fear to betray Billy Budd, and that of Billy Budd himself, while Captain Vere is presented with what might be seen as the traditional conflict between duty and love, current in earlier operatic tradition. The technical problem of writing only for male voices is triumphantly overcome, while the work provided a moving role for Peter Pears as Captain Vere in the original production and a chance for Britten again to evoke the sea, as he had done in Peter Grimes six years before.