Britten’s Billy Budd
Sung in English. Music by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier.
An old English naval captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, recalls the summer of 1797, during the war with France, when he commanded HMS Indomitable in the aftermath of the mutiny at the Nore. That summer, the Indomitable conscripted three men from a passing merchant ship, the Rights o’ Man. One of them, Billy Budd, is a handsome youth who stammers under pressure. He is elated to be assigned as a foretopman and bids farewell to his old life on the Rights o’ Man. The officers misunderstand his mention of “the rights of man”; they think Billy may harbor revolutionary ideas. The master-at-arms, Claggart, takes a strong dislike to Billy and resolves to have him hanged. Claggart goes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of fomenting mutiny. Vere believes the master-at-arms is mistaken but agrees to question Billy in Claggart’s presence. When asked to respond to Claggart’s allegations, Billy can only stammer. In frustration, he strikes Claggart, who collapses, dead. Captain Vere calls for a court martial, and Billy is found guilty and sentenced to death. Just before the sentence is carried out, Billy cries out a blessing to Captain Vere.