The season, day by day

back to calendar

Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten 1913-1976

Opera in two acts
Libretto by Edward Morgan Forster & Eric John Crozier, based on Herman Melville's story Billy Budd Foretopman (1891)
First performance of 2nd edition January 9 1964, Covent Garden, London (premiere of this production: November 18 2007)

Sung in English with German surtitles
ca. 3 hours, including 1 interval
an introductory talk, in German, begins in the upstairs foyer 30 minutes before every performance  

Prologue Captain Vere is reflects on the time when he was captain of the warship Indomitable during the war between England and France. Act I Flashback: Men are being ordered about. A novice slips and is sentenced to be whipped. Recruiters return with three men seized from the trader ship Rights o’ Man. John Claggart, master at arms, interviews them. The first two are a disappointment but the third, Billy Budd, seems to have the makings of a good sailor, until he begins to stutter. He is assigned foretopman, and joyfully takes his farewell from his old life on the Rights o’Man. The officers misunderstand him and suspect him of being a supporter of the human rights movement. They decide to keep an eye on him. Claggart orders Squeak to spy on Billy. The novice has been whipped. Billy feels sorry for him. Donald and Dansker warn Billy about Claggart’s unpredictability and short temper. They also tell him how everyone loves the captain – „Starry Vere“. Billy says he will follow the captain, and would be prepared to risk his life for him. Sc. 2 Captain Vere has invited Mr Redburn & Mr Flint, to join him for a drink. They voice worries that the influences of the french revolution might catch on, encouraging the men on the Indomitable to mutiny. They suspect Billy Budd but Vere defends him, sure that Billy is a good man. He maintains that a happy ship is the best defence against rebellion. They are at war and could encounter a french ship any day. Sc. 3 The men amuse themselves before going to bed. Billy goes to find some bacca for Dansker and finds Squeak rummaging through his things. He stammers. The men tell him to watch out, because Squeak is armed. Claggart demands to know what is going on. He orders that Squeak be taken away and praises Billy. Alone, Claggart swears that he will annihilate Billy and goodness, both of which threaten to endanger the order of his world. He forces the novice to frame Billy by offering him guineas if he will lead the men in their grievances. Billy is sleepy and so only slowly catches on to what the novice is implying. He is shocked and starts to stutter. The novice runs off. Dansker tries to warn Billy about Claggart's evil nature but Billy doesn’t want to listen, sure that he is loved by everyone on board and dreaming of promotion. Act II Claggart tries to warn Captain Vere that there is a dangerous man on board. Their conversation is interrupted - an enemy ship has been sighted. The Indomitable takes up chase and fires a shot, which fails. Mist descends, ending the chase. Claggart speaks to the Captain again, and accuses Billy. Sc. 2 Vere sends for Billy, who thinks he must be going to be promoted. Vere tells him that he is to be questioned and asks Claggart to repeat his allegations. Claggart accuses him of mutiny. Billy’s stutter prevents him from defending himself and in his frustration he hits out at Claggart, killing him. Although Vere is still sure that Billy is innocent he must follow the rules. He orders his officers to hold a court martial. They find him guilty and sentence him to death. Sc. 3 Billy is preparing himself for his execution. Dansker comes to see him and tells him that the men want to save him. Billy tells him to forbid the men to interfere – instead they must promise to look after and follow Vere when Billy is no longer there to do so himself. Sc. 4 All are assembled to witness Billy Budd’s execution. Before he dies he cries out „Starry Vere, God bless you“. The men become rebellious after the execution but are soon put in their place. Vere does nothing. Epilogue Years later Vere still cannot get Billy Budd out of his mind. He could have saved him, could have saved the life of an open, loving and peace-loving man.

»One of the most beautiful stories in the world!« said Thomas Mann about Herman Melville's Billy Budd. Benjamin Britten's opera, in which there are no female roles, is a masterpiece and Richard Jones' production at Oper Frankfurt was very enthusiastically received. »A huge success«, wrote a critic in the Frankfurt Allgemeine newspaper.

Billy, press-ganged into working on board a warship, is a young, good looking and extremely trustworthy young man, with a stammer. He is so good natured and naïve that he does not notice that Claggart, the intrigant master at arms, the embodiment of evil, is jealous that he is loved by everyone. Claggart accuses Billy of plotting a mutiny. When Captain Vere, Billy's father-like protector, asks him to answer the charge Billy's stammer prevents him speaking and he lashes out instead, dealing a deadly blow to Claggert. He is sentenced to death, by hanging.