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Friday, January 10, 2014

Billy Budd—The Far-Shining Sail

by Marina Harss

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In January 1949, Benjamin Britten, librettist Eric Crozier, and novelist EM Forster met at Britten’s home in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast, to discuss ideas for a new opera, based on Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd. “Ben made a rough drawing of what he thought a three-masted schooner was like, going by what Melville had written,” Crozier recalled in a recent documentary. “That was the exact genesis of the opera.” The battleship, HMS Indomitable, with its various decks, cramped quarters, and maze of public and private spaces, contains the whole world of Billy Budd. It is a world of men; the absence of the fairer sex is striking. (Treble voices are supplied by kids playing the “powder-monkeys,” boys who carried gunpowder on warships.)

The Indomitable is a “seventy-four” (a ship with 74 guns), engaged in Britain’s wars against revolutionary France. The year is 1797. As the action begins, the men near enemy waters; tension is high, not only due to of the imminence of battle but also because of recent mutinies on Royal Navy ships (inspired, in part, by radical ideas from France). The naval officers keep a close watch, ready to sniff out the slightest hint of rebellion among the men. “Life’s not all play on a man-of-war,” an officer gruffly reminds them, whip at the ready, as they scrub the deck with holystones. The sailors moan their discontent in the haunting, chant-like chorus, “O heave, O heave away, O heave.” The sense of compulsion and cruelty is as heavy as their lament.

Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd), center. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival production of Billy Budd, staged by the award-winning theater director Michael Grandage—which comes to BAM on Feb. 7 with a cast from the 2013 festival—the audience is placed at the heart of Britten’s floating society, We are on the main deck of the Indomitable, enclosed by the ship’s hulking frame, the bridge above. Christopher Oram’s set is claustrophobic, often dark; private areas are enclosed by moving walls and painterly light that conceals as much as it reveals. The world outside—the mist, the dawn—is merely suggested by small patches of sky bathed in shifting hues. The instability of mood, on and off the ship, is painted in wondrous orchestral interludes of overlapping layers of sound. The music sets the scene but also carries us from one area of the ship to another. In one scene, faint voices of sailors singing a yearning sea shanty (“Blow her to Hilo, Riley!”) waft from below. The trail of their voices leads us to the cramped lower deck, where we are engulfed in waves of male voices in rich, gleaming harmony. A kind of peace reigns, but not for long, as the scene shifts.

The ship frames and contains the story, told in a long flashback by Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, “a sailor of distinction,” according to Melville, “mindful of the welfare of his men.” In a way, the ship is his mind, the vessel of his memories. Decades later, near death, he is tormented by the events of the fateful year when he made his short acquaintance with the young, happy sailor Billy Budd. “I am an old man who has experienced much,” he reflects in the opera’s prologue. (The monologues were written by Forster, while Crozier focused on dialogue.) The meandering trail of Vere’s thoughts is egged on by quietly insistent, creeping strings. Something gnaws at his conscience. “Much good as been shown me and much evil, and the good has never been perfect.” Here lies the opera’s central dilemma—why do we make certain choices in life? “What have I done?,” Vere asks himself, grappling with his past and with eternity. At BAM, tenor Mark Padmore sings the role (originated by Peter Pears) with a feverish, conflicted interiority.

If Vere’s memory represents the moral tug-of-war raging within all decent, thoughtful men, then sailor Billy Budd and Master-at-Arms John Claggart are the two extremes between which he is tugged. Billy is “too good,” as his fellow sailor Dansker warns. His simple, generous nature is manifested in a magnetic beauty that draws everyone to him, including the captain. (Billy is sung with appealing guilelessness by the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo.) In contrast Claggart (bass Brindley Sherratt), his presence insinuated by an ensemble of growling horns, is consumed by resentment and self-loathing. From the moment he lays eyes on Billy, the fate of both men is sealed: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers. O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness, would that I had never seen you!,” Claggart cries. Each man loves Billy in his own way. Vere sees in him salvation, “the far-shining sail,” that leads to a safe haven. (The opera can be read as an allegory of Christian redemption.) But Claggart cannot tolerate the irruption of such beauty—and love—in his dark soul. “I will mutilate and silence the body where you dwell,” he swears, “with hate and envy I’m stronger than love.” Enacting his curse, he drags Vere and Billy down with him. Adrift on the Indomitable, their fates are intertwined.

Marina Harss is a freelance dance and culture writer and translator in New York. Her dance blog, Random Thoughts on Dance, is at

Reprinted from the January 2014 BAMbill.

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