Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Britten Billy Budd ENO background

Bernjamin Britten's Billy Budd at the ENO Coliseum last night. Anyone can have an opinion. The real skill lies in trying to analyse why. FULL REVIEW HERE.  First, though, the building blocks on which I've arrived at my reactions.

What is this opera about?  Billy Budd isn't so much about Billy Budd as about Captain Vere, with whom the opera starts and ends. Captain Vere can't find peace until he can understand what the events of 1797 meant.  His dilemma "is" the central and absolute drama of the entire piece. "My life's broken. It's not his trial, it's mine, mine. It is I whom the Devil awaits". So what kind of man is Captain Vere? .

Billy Budd was written during the McCarthy era with its hysterical witch hunts. It is significant that the libretto makes more of the political paranoia of 1797 than Herman Melville made in the original story, for it is pertinent to the "danger" the ship and its crew are in. It's not the Rights of Man so much as the right of individuals to be what they are in repressive situations.  Britten was emotionally reticent, knowing it could be dangerous to be too open, unsafe to be candid. When Billy's feelings get too much for him, he clams up, too, stammering instead of speaking. Claggart just happens to get in the way when Billy explodes. 

Britten's writing for Vere is the most complex in the whole opera, for he is its true centre. The men  don't call him "Starry Vere" for nothing. He spouts Scylla and Charybdis. He might as well be speaking in code as far as his men are concerned. Even his officers are so limited that they can't speak of the French except in dismissive babble. Sun readers, perhaps? Like Billy, "Starry" Vere's natural habitat is way up above the decks, and the hold where Claggart reigns unchecked. The seamen revere Vere but he's not by any means a god-like figure. He's crippled by the very sensitivity that makes him a civilized man. I keep thinking of Ian Bostridge's Captain Vere, acutely aware and self-questioning. Anyone can rush into battle. A good leader doesn't do vainglory. It takes much more courage not to need to win at all costs. Ian Bostridge's Captain Vere battled with the moral enemies that are at the heart of Britten's opera. More than most anyone else, Bostridge captures the wild inner spirit of Britten's music and brings out its savage beauty.

Billy is a counterpart to Captain Vere, but on a much more instinctive level. 0ne of Britten's innocents, doomed because purity itself is doomed by fate itself, rather than by the actions of others, He's had more than his share of unfairness in life, yet he doesn't dwell on disappointment.  Even when he faces death, he thinks about food.  Thus Dansker's act of kindness nourishes him more than hard biscuit alone would do. Perhaps it's a coping mechanism, so he can avoid difficult emotions, but it works for him.  He's not stupid. Where does Billy's faith in life come from? He's not a Jesus figure, as some have suggested, because he's much too down to earth.  What is the vision he imagines  as he sees "Through the port comes moonshine stray".?  “No more looking down from the heights to the depths !” he sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm…I see where she’s bound for.”  When Jacques Imbrailo sang Billy Budd at Glyndebourne (review here)  he seemed to radiate goodness, so natural and genuine that he seemed to generate a kind of luminous life force. Perhaps Captain Vere finds deliverance when he realizes that he doesn't have to explain or justify anything, but simply have faith in the workings of fate. 

The most electrifying Billy Budd recording is by Daniel Harding, with the London Symphony Orchestra (read more about that here). Here the ocean is a protagonist, every bit as much as the singing roles. Indeed, against the wild forces of nature, the 'Indomitable' isn’t indomitable; it’s vulnerable, and can be destroyed by fate as capriciously as Billy himself is destroyed. Through the orchestra, the ocean takes central stage, turbulent and intense. Huge crescendos build up like mighty waves, but even more impressive is the undertow of dark, murmuring sound that surges ever forwards. Above this, currents flowed diagonally across the orchestra, first violins flowing to brass and basses and back, just as ships lurch back and forth. You could get seasick if you focussed too hard, but that is the point, for Britten is showing that the “floating world” aboard ship is unsteady, far removed from the certainties of dry land. Just like the enveloping mists, all points of moral reference are hidden. “Lost in the infinite sea”, sings Captain Vere, a refrain that recurs repeatedly, in voice and in the orchestra.

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