Sunday, September 21, 2008


"But he has saved me, and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me"

Billy Budd (Armfield director) Houston Grand Opera

Opera Australia’s production of Britten’s BILLY BUDD (1951) returns, 10 years after its premier, to Sydney this Wednesday, September 24.

Britten’s music is set to a libretto by E. M. Forster in collaboration with Eric Crosier, based of the novella by the American Herman Melville. It is a dark morality play: men at sea in Napoleonic times, the action compressed onto the royal navy boat HMS Indomitable, against a backdrop of mutiny and the relentless instability of the sea and war. Confined only by the laws of the sea and the King, goodness confronts evil and innocence meets hate. And the French cop their share.

Conductor Richard Hickox
Director Neil Armfield
Set design Brian Thompson
Costumes Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Nigel Levings

Captain Vere Philip Langridge
Billy Budd TeddyTahu Rhodes
Claggart John Wegner

Big all male chorus. Nudity warning.

This Neil Armfield production was a co-production for Welsh National Opera and Opera Australia. It has been widely acclaimed, and staged in Australia, Wales, England, USA (Houston), Canada, and now it’s back home, carrying the recognition it deserves and a Barclay’s Award (Opera) in London and six Dora Mavor Moore Awards (Canada, performing arts).

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, all pecs and tussled hair, seems to be the main marketing weapon, making his Australian role debut, having just sung Billy for the first time in Santa Fe. Even more marketable should be the likely strength of the performances, the Captain Vere of Philip Langridge, the great Britten tenor of our day. Captain 'Starry' Vere is the vocal and moral fulcrum of the work, and we are lucky that Langridge, as fine a singing actor as there is, is back after his mesmerising 2006 Aschenbach (Death in Venice). He says he may be getting long in the tooth; perfect for Vere I say. Claggart is in the hands of John Wegner. If Wegner's Adelaide Alberich is any guide, we are in for a very nasty bad guy.

When I recently asked a colleague at work if he was going, the snapped reply was “Once was enough”. Oh no, once is not enough. That’s exactly the point. This work probes good and evil, moral ambivalence, corruption, class, power, rank, honesty, loyalty, honour, judgement and forgiveness. It is Shakespearian. “Once was enough” also manages to keep the musical values unmasked, Britten's genius dismissed by a quick and lazy where-are-the-tunes?

Once is not enough. Once is not enough. Once is not enough.

Patrick Summers, conductor and Houston Grand Opera Music Director explains (abridged) :

" 'There must always be two kinds of art, escape art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.' W. H. Auden.

Nearly every work of Benjamin Britten’s life was focused on the tensions between appearances and reality.

Billy Budd, for him [Britten], wove endless webs of ambiguity in its story of how the machinery of state justice can overcome and overtake the individual.

The plot of Billy Budd can be easily viewed as various versions of a Christian allegory, with Billy as Jesus or Adam, Vere as Pontius Pilate or an emissary of God, and Claggart as Herod, or even Satan. The three characters form triangular opposing forces: Billy knows nothing but goodness, and his simplicity makes him unable to conceive of evil; Vere knows goodness, but his cherished philosophies have filled him with doubt, which makes him vulnerable to a man like Claggart, who has rejected goodness for reasons we never know.

In collaboration with Crozier, Forster eventually provided Britten with luminous prose, weighted with Christian imagery, words that ached for music. To the evil Claggart, he gives words such as “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers,” recalling the gospel of John, first chapter, verses 4–5: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (KJV).

Leonard Bernstein, who knew Britten well, as he had conducted the US premiere of Peter Grimes at Tanglewood in 1946, said of him in the documentary A Time There Was, “Ben Britten was a man at odds with the world. It’s strange, because on the surface Britten’s music would seem to be decorative, positive, charming, but it’s so much more than that. When you hear Britten’s music, if you really hear it, not just listen to it superficially, you become aware of something dark. There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”

Few composers have so successfully evoked the sea in music as Benjamin Britten. The sea of Billy Budd is an isolating, gaping nothingness, an earthly version of the firmament.

And pay no attention to clichés that Benjamin Britten “has no melodies.” Billy Budd is densely packed with expressive and psychologically telling melodies, but they don’t necessarily do your work for you; they require active, open listening, and an absorbance of the shattering drama they illuminate. The combined effect of his probing melodic writing and the polytonality and can be easily understood and, more importantly, felt. The implications of this story are often disturbing and dark, and Britten’s music is rightfully no less so.

The most immediate impact of Billy Budd’s score can be heard in the many shanties of the sailors, all original. Listen to “Over the water, over the ocean, into the harbour carry me home” and hear the melancholy longing for home in Britten’s music. Another shanty, near the beginning of the work, provides amazing unity through the score. The melody of the work song “Oh heave, oh heave away” is first heard in the prologue of the opera, in the flashback of Captain Vere longingly wondering, “Oh what have I done?” This music is heard two more times: first in Billy’s innocent farewell to his former ship, the Rights o’ Man. (Billy’s mention of the ship early in the opera is misunderstood by the distrustful officers as a reference to Thomas Paine’s famous paean to personal freedom, The Rights of Man, and Billy is immediately suspected of inciting mutiny). Most tellingly, we hear this music transformed into the pure menace of a wordless fugue, as the sailors threaten an actual mutiny following Billy’s death.

There is so much in this overwhelming score. Listen to the opening scene on the deck of the ship, how the officers bark orders in real time, with jagged and whipping vocal lines, while the response of those ordered is slow and oppressed. Listen to the mournful saxophone dirge, based on the sailors’ tune, “We’re lost forever on the endless sea.” It mourns the innocent young novice, broken and humiliated, as he is returned to the deck after his brutal flogging. Britten himself moved the flogging offstage, feeling it “too much” to see depicted. Early in Act II, as the Indomitable is about to fire on a French ship only to be foiled by the mist, listen how the exuberant “This is our moment, the moment we’ve been waiting for!” is transformed into the foggy music that follows it.

Claggart vows to destroy Billy in his sepulchral aria, “O, Beauty, O Handsomeness, Goodness, would that I never had seen you.” He destroys any beauty he encounters (shades of fallen angels). Claggart knows from the beginning that Billy’s goodness must not be allowed to live. Britten’s strange music for this aria, on first hearing so at odds with the words, forces us to question our assumptions about the character’s motivations, and creates a palpable and unnerving emotional tension.The polytonality, so subtly used throughout the work, reaches a heady climax, shortly after the killing of Claggart. The terrified Captain Vere quietly sings “The mists have cleared” after which Britten quickly stacks a massive and painful chord across the orchestra, a chord containing eleven of the twelve notes of the Western scale, and it tells us the emphatic truth about the mists. One chord tells us more than a hundred words that the cogs of justice are now inevitable.

The trial proceeds and Vere must endure Billy’s pleas to save him—“I’d have died for you, save me!”—but Vere, lost in the philosophies and histories he loves, must follow the laws that cradle the democracy he treasures, the sacrifice of one to save the many. Only Billy’s death can save his ship from mutiny and preserve his reputation, for a mutinous ship cannot defend its country.

One of the most remarkable musical passages of Billy Budd has been one of the most controversial and discussed, that of the thirty-four terse chords of the so-called “interview” scene, in the scene leading into Billy’s dawn aria, “Billy in the Darbies.” During this music, unseen, Vere is telling Billy of the court’s decision. Surprisingly, Britten was accused by some of “copping out” here by not portraying the scene between Vere and Billy as narrative. But the thirty-four chords pass in no more than two minutes and tell us everything. Britten the dramatist instinctively removes the drama from the realm of the literal, and moves it to the cellular level in blocked, elemental chords that are by turns fearful, shocked, resigned, and finally, calmly accepting. This surprising passage feels somehow scientific, more of the cosmos than of the earth, as though nature itself were the only thing left to explain the tragedy.

The opera, which began in two keys struggling with each other, eventually resolves itself into one in an overwhelming expression near the end of the work. In the epilogue, Vere finds an uneasy peace about Billy, confessing, “But he has saved me and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me.” "

The love that is forgiveness.

For anyone wanting more on this confronting work, start at the Britten-Pears Foundation, where there are notes on the preparation of the opera, some musical insights, and a fine video introduction: Britten's Billy Budd.


Sieglinde said...

True - this opera is addictive. I saw it first in February and am obsessed with it since then.

Langridge is simply a God. And still very hot for his age.

wanderer said...

Yes, Sieglinde, yes.

We are now recovering from a most compelling Peter Grimes.

I see you are in Hungary. I have been to Budapest these last few years for the June Wagner festival. The Budapest Festival Orchestra, Adam Fischer, in that fantastic Palace of Arts, is he best kept opera secret in the world.

Do you know anything about casting for next years Tristan?

Sieglinde said...

Oh - this is truly flattering that people from that far come to our festival. I go every year too.

Tristan will be Christian Franz (adore that man), Isolde: Anna Katharina Behnke, Marke: Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Kurwenal: Thomas Konieczny, Brangäne: Judith Németh. *sigh* I'd prefer Herlutzius or Stemme as Isolde...

They should totally do BB here. The Palace is way better for this than the Opera. I think our main problem is that we have no pretty young baritones here. But we could import.

Do you have msn? Mine is . It's compatible with Yahoo too.

wanderer said...

I mean this year, 2009......