Flawed Beauty, Fatal Innocence

An Apollonian figure destroyed by the dark forces of Dionysus

A scene from Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd at the Vienna State Opera | Photo: Staatsoper Wien

“The good has never been perfect… always some flaw… some stammer in the divine speech.” Thus begins Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece and perhaps one of the most powerful dramas of 20th-century musical stage. It is a story of human crisis, the conflict between law and morality, an inquiry into darker questions of right and wrong, of good and evil.

Based on a novel by Herman Melville, the setting is a British man-o’-war during the French Revolution, the date is 1797. The HMS Indomitable is armed for battle and in search of a French ship to attack. It is a world of men, of rigid hierarchy and autocratic hostility: The threat of mutiny hangs in the air.

It is a somber tale, set by Britten to gorgeous music. Rich and colorful, the score is full of unusual sounds, like a tolling in the harp’s deepest strings or a saxophone intoning a plaintive lament. There is an undertone of the fear of the revolutionary mood, whose “progressive” sentiments are dangerous, especially on a ship where many crew members have been pressed into service and minor mistakes are brutally punished.

A passing merchant ship is flagged down so the Indomitable can stock up its lowest ranks. Following the first two wretches, Billy Budd steps on board full of vigor and adventurous excitement. His only flaw: When he’s nervous he stutters.

Billy shouts a happy good-bye to his former ship: “Farewell, Rights o’ Man!” In the ears of John Claggart, the weapons master, “rights o’ man” rings like a call to rebellion. But his mistrust of Billy has deeper roots: he hates the beauty, friendliness and optimism of the new conscript. These are things Claggart will never have, and the suffering caused by his repressed longings has made him a hateful, cruel man.

These forces take on heightened reality in Britten’s music, whose abrasive tonalities clash and combine, with boisterous seamen’s songs tumbling over military shouts, or dark lurking tones in the low brass, representing the Claggart’s scheming, undermined by light, nearly frivolous fanfares in the piccolo and horns, reflecting Billy’s bright cheerfulness.

The ship’s Captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, is the fulcrum between these two. A learned man, he reads Plutarch in his cabin, while Claggart has young sailors flogged. He is liked by the crew, who call him Starry Vere. But he cannot go against the rules of the sea; when the despised Claggart accuses Billy of mutiny, the young sailor, trapped in his stammer, strikes him dead. Billy is guilty of assaulting a superior and of murder, both punishable by death.

Britten’s opera had its world première in 1951, but it was 50 years before it was performed at the Vienna State Opera. The February performances were a revival of that 2001 production, with Willy Decker’s staging still just as powerful. The American star tenor Neil Shicoff again sang Captain Vere, the true central role, in a passionate declamatory style that perfectly captured the painful ambivalence his character feels.

Adrian Eröd as Billy Budd was thoroughly credible in his youthful naiveté, fervor and trust. And with every entrance, the deep bass timbre of Peter Rose as John Claggart brought a shiver of evil, but never reduced this malevolent man to a caricature.

Billy Budd is a masculine opera. There is not a single woman on stage. But this is never monotonous; it brings a drama of its own. The only high voices are the falsettos of the youngest conscripts (which would have been even more affecting from real boy sopranos, of which we’ve heard Vienna has a number).

And British conductor Graeme Jenkins matched this drama. He is a large, enthusiastic man, with a clear analytical grasp of the work combined with a passion about its beauty. He sees it as a tale about the “corruption of innocence,” the winning of evil over good. He describes Billy as an Apollo figure, destroyed by the dark forces of Dionysus.

Jenkins is Music Director at the Dallas Opera. He debuted in Vienna six years ago, and this season has conducted here several times. He is pessimistic about the music scene in the U.S. where serious art can only exist if sponsors are found. But today’s young donors are in for the glam and expect to be spoon-fed the story-line. And then there is the Puritanism: Some school classes in Dallas were not allowed to see an educational production of The Tales of Hoffmann because there was drinking on stage; even insinuating that love-making is going on off stage in Rigoletto can result in formal complaints and threats of legal action. “Irony doesn’t exist in the Midwest,” says Jenkins.

But what is opera if not a language for the passions of life and love? Jenkins still brings “difficult,” serious opera to the stage in Texas. But he is clearly happy to be in Vienna.

A court-martial condemns Billy to death. Yet at the stunning climax of Billy Budd, the stage is empty; not a voice is heard. Vere gives Billy his sentence off-stage. A seemingly unending passage of extremely slow chords, passed between the strings, the brass and the woodwinds, evokes the tragic words that are being said only in our minds.

The Falconer’s Marine Dictionary of 1815 gives the chilling description of a death sentence by court-martial: “On the morning destined for the execution, the signal of death is displayed, and the boats of the squadron, manned and armed, surround the ship…The crew is arranged on deck… a gun is fired… and the unhappy victim, who has violated the laws of the country, is run up by the neck, to the yard-arm, a terrible example to the surrounding spectators.”

A drumming out calls all to deck. In the end, innocence is lost. Vere is a broken man, only saved by Billy’s hopeful last words: “God bless you, Starry Vere.”

Jenkins will be back to Vienna in May 2011 to conduct five performances of Leoš Janáek’s Jenfa.

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