Benjamin Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’

Virgilio Fantuzzi, SJ

 Virgilio Fantuzzi, SJ / Culture / 30 August 2018

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Billy Budd is an opera in two acts by Benjamin Britten. It finally came to Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera nearly 70 years after its London premiere in a coproduction with Madrid’s Royal Theater and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. This version has been awarded the prestigious International Opera Award for best production. 

The Short Story by Herman Melville

This masterpiece is inspired by a novella of the same name by Herman Melville, who dedicated the last, hard years of his life to it. The protagonist is a young and handsome sailor, Billy Budd, spontaneous and natural, who, forced to serve on the English warship Indomitable, inspires the affection and admiration of his fellows. He exercises upon them a benign influence, bringing joy and peace even in the terrible conditions endured by sailors of that time, particularly the British ones. The short opera is set in 1797 when England is at war with France.

Budd is an orphan, a pre-Christian primitive, demonstrating an elementary and pre-cultural development, living day by day, with the absolute innocence of a child. He could be identified as a kind of primordial Adam before the Fall. He has a stutter, but he is able to sing joyfully together with others.

Opposite the protagonist, Billy Budd, is set the antagonist, Claggart, the master-at-arms, charged with the crew’s discipline. As Billy is a symbol of innocence and goodness, Claggart is the symbol of perfidy and evil. Expert in the ways of the world, totally ignored by Billy, but governed by cold reason, Claggart is like Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or the Bard’s Iago in Othello. He represents the essence of the biblical tempter. He is the devil incarnate, acting like Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost.

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