Opera Profile: Britten’s “Billy Budd”

By Logan Martell

First premiering at the Royal Opera House on December 1st, 1951, Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” is based on a novel of the same name by Herman Melville, author of the famed sea-faring story “Moby Dick.” The libretto was by E.M. Forster in collaboration with Eric Crozier.

As Britten composed the score for “Billy Budd,” a one-act opera based on the same story was premiered at the 1949 Venice International Festival, composed by Giorgio Federico Ghedini; this adaptation, however, failed to receive significant attention.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins with a prologue. Captain Edward Vere of the HMS Indomitable reflects on the struggles between good and evil, his conscience wrapped around one particular situation that occurred years ago, when he met a young man named Billy Budd.

One day whilst at sea, a vessel returns to the Indomitable that had been sent to conscript young sailors into the service of the Royal Navy. Two of them are displeased about their conscription but Billy Budd is greatly excited. When Billy sings a spirited farewell to his old ship, which is named Rights o’ Man, the officers come to believe that Billy will be an insubordinate sailor; he especially earns the ire of Claggart, the Master-at-Arms. While Billy is taken aback by the treatment of a novice who was flogged, he believes that dutiful work will spare him from danger; a statement for which an older sailor named Dansker chides Billy’s naiveté. When Captain Vere and his officers discuss the French Revolution and concurrent mutinies within the British Royal Navy, the officers warn that Billy will provoke the same upon their ship, though Vere has faith in all of his men. Later, Claggart has the flogged novice try to bribe Billy into starting a mutiny, but Billy refuses.

After a brief confrontation with a French ship where they lose them due to a thick mist, Claggart again tries to convince Vere of the danger Billy represents. While Vere dismisses his words, he sends for Billy so they can put an end to this dispute. When Claggart directly accuses Billy, the young man falls into a stammering rage where his strike ends up killing Claggart. With no other choice, Billy is court-martialed and the other officers sentence him to death by hanging. Although Billy pleads for Vere’s pardon, the captain is silent and the verdict of the officers is upheld. Later, Billy is visited by Dansker, who tells him that for his sake the crew is ready to mutiny. Billy dissuades them from this course of action, remaining true to his faith in Captain Vere. In the early hours of the morning, Billy is brought onto the deck before the rest of the crew. His final words are a blessing to Captain Vere before he is finally hanged. Years later, Vere reflects on the grace he was shown by Billy, despite failing to save him. Billy’s blessing has allowed Vere to come to peace with the events and ultimately forgive himself.

Watch and Listen 

Here is one of the famous recordings of the opera, the BBC broadcast movie that featured Peter Pears, Peter Glossop, Michael Langdon, John Shirley-Quirk, Bryan Drake, David Kelly, Kenneth MacDonald, all under Sir Charles Mackerras.


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