Opera in two acts (duration 2 hours 40 minutes)
Original version in four acts (duration 2 hours 45 minutes)
Libretto by EM Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the story by Herman Melville
A quick introduction
When was it written?
January 1950 – 2 November 1951, revised September 1960. The first performance was on 1 December 1951 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
What’s it about?
The opera is set aboard the HMS Indomitable during the eighteenth century Napoleonic wars. It revolves around the tragic dilemma facing Captain Vere when a much-loved foretopman, Billy, inadvertently causes the death of the vindictive Master-at-Arms John Claggart.
What does it sound like?
This is Britten’s first grand opera since Peter Grimes and is for large orchestra and – very unusually – an entirely male cast. There are stirring choruses and powerful solo arias, and the orchestral writing is some of most emotional Britten ever composed.
Watch & listen
Time and Place: On board HMS Indomitable during the French Wars of 1797
The opera is preceded by a prologue in which Captain Vere, as an old man, ponders the significance of events that took place long ago.
Act 1. The main action is set on board the British naval vessel HMS Indomitable in 1797. The crew goes about its tasks driven by the brutality of the ship’s Master-at-arms, John Claggart, who rules by violence. Three new sailors, press-ganged from a passing merchant ship, are brought on board. Two of them are meagre specimens, but the third – Billy Budd – is young, strong and handsome, His goodness wins the hearts of all except Claggart, whose dark world is turned upside down by Billy’s beauty and grace, and who determines to destroy him. To this end, he has his sidekick Squeak rifle amongst Billy’s belongings and when then the young sailor catches him, the old sea dog Dansker warns Billy that Claggart has it in for him. Claggart then has the Novice – cowed into submission by an earlier beating – try to bribe Billy into supporting mutiny, but to no avail.
Act 2. Claggart takes his complaint about Billy to Vere, but he is interrupted in his accusation by a brief skirmish with a French frigate that ends with the enemy escaping. Claggart then accuses Billy, who is called in by Vere to defend himself. His stammer, however, frustrates his attempts to speak, and he knocks Claggart down with a single blow that strikes him dead. At the court martial Vere fails to speak up for Billy, who is then condemned. He goes to his death with Vere’s name on his lips.
In the Epilogue, we return to the aged Vere, who again scrutinises his role in these events.
For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.