Though it’s late the day, I want to recommend Opera Australia’s production of Billy Budd. There are only two performances left — tonight (Monday 13 October) and Thursday. This is indeed short notice for tonight but, for the spontaneous among you, tickets are only $60 if you book on-line.
Billy Budd was Herman Melville’s last work, a ninety-page novella written in 1888-89, but not published until long after his death in 1924. It is set on a British warship, the Indomitable in 1797. The character who gives the story its title is a young ‘foretopman’, adored by the crew for his infinite good looks and good nature. However, there is one man on board, a psychopathic petty officer named John Claggart, who hates Billy; consumed by jealousy, he hatches a plot to destroy him. Claggart tells Captain Vere that Billy has been inciting rebellion amongst his fellow conscripts. Distrusting Claggart’s motives, the captain refuses to take the claim at face value, and demands that he accuse Billy to his face. Unable to comprehend the enormity of Claggart’s evil, the pure-hearted Billy is reduced to helpless stammering; unable to defend himself, he strikes Claggart with his fist, and unfortunately kills him. Though he sympathises with Billy, Vere appoints a ‘drum court’ to try Billy on charges of striking an officer and murder.
Melville never finished the work, and it remained ignored — along with most of his mature writings, including Moby Dick — until the 1920s. Britten had already written a couple of seafaring operas, and was looking for a suitable subject for a collaboration with E.M. Forster. At face value, it’s a perfect story for an opera, but it wasn’t an easy work to transform into a script. For all his reputation as a writer about action and adventure, Melville in fact frequently subordinates action and dialog to metaphysical speculation, and often breaks the rule that writers should ‘show, not tell’. At the same time, the inescapability in a stage drama of ‘showing’ the scenes, presented a good opportunity for a librettist to build on Melville’s incomplete foundations. Forster and his collaborator Eric Crozier did a fine job, especially with the accusation scene, for which Melville provided only a brief synopsis.
Nonetheless, they chose not to show everything. In Melville’s novella, after the drum court convicts Billy and sentences him to death, Vere has a private talk with Billy. As a result of this meeting, Billy’s sentiments are transformed from fear and rage to philosophical acceptance of his fate, to the point that he chooses to cry ‘God bless Captain Vere’ before being hoist up the yardarm. But Melville leaves it the reader to imagine what was said: ‘Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place in the interview will never be known.’ (Actually, he could have told us, since the narrative voice, though inconsistent, is at least sometimes an omniscient one: so we can be sure that the reason the narrator doesn’t tell us is that he doesn’t want to.) In the opera too, the ‘interview’ is left out. Instead the orchestra plays a series of strange, reposeful chords as we contemplate the empty deck and wonder what is being said.
Michael Halliwell, in his program notes for ths production, stresses the importance of this two-minute interlude, and argues that ‘ambiguity’ is the key to the piece as a whole. But I don’t think Melville himself intended any ambiguity on this particular point. Directly after the mysterious talk, we see Billy in chains but reconciled to his fate, proclaiming his soul to be at at peace in the achingly beautiful “Look, through the port”. It is now obvious, if it wasn’t already, that this is a Christ story, and we are watching Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this aspect the opera adheres to the book. The point about the preceeding ‘interview’ is not that it was ambiguous, but that it was simply too profound and sublime for depiction, and better left to the imagination.
If there is some ambiguity it relates to the motives, as distinct from the actions, of Captain Vere. But it’s present only in the opera version. In both the book and the opera, the officers-cum-judges beg Vere for guidance before reaching their verdict. In the book, not only does he comply, but he gives a comprehensive case for the prosecution and passes judgment as well, in terms of quite abstract arguments (Melville has already laid the groundwork, depicting Vere as a scholar and philosopher) — in a speech that might easily be deemed the key passage of the book. Justice demands leniency, and Vere knows that every man on board will approve if he shows it. Yet he determines that duty to the King demands a rigid adherence to military law, especially in an atmosphere of rebellion when any concession to extraneous higher principles might weaken military discipline. In short, God the Father will sacrifice his son in pursuit of greater ends.
In the opera, by stark contrast, Vere in fact refuses to point way the at all: “I’ve said enough”, he says, and, Pilate-like, he leaves it to the court. This opens up the possibility that he might in fact be ducking responsibility for the decision, while at the same time sending a tacit signal to his subordinates that they must condemn — an outcome that would be looked on favourably by the admiralty. In this interpretation, Vere is Pontius Pilate rather than God the Father.
There is supposed to be a homoerotic interpretation of the whole thing, but being an innocent in these matters, I could never quite figure out what it was. Does Claggart destroy Billy because he’s jealous of the captain’s affection for him? The snag here is that we know nothing of the captain’s affection for Billy until after Claggart has put his plan into motion. Does Vere condemn Billy because he’s afraid of his own passion? Maybe, but that would have been an equally plausible reason for saving him. In any case, the moral dilemma is intriguing enough without any erotic dimension. Beyond the general point that, emphasised by Melville himself, that the Handsome Sailor attracts more than his share of attention, I can’t see any need to interpret the story in terms of sex.
You can get a taste of the music (and some more interpretation) on this clip, but this concert version doesn’t begin to do do justice to Neil Armfield’s exciting stage production. The centrepiece of the latter, which has been running on and off for about ten years, is the hydraulic platform you can see in the picture, which not only captures the vertical dimension of the ship, but rocks, turns and twists in a way that captures the motion, danger and precariousness of life on the waves.
As an actor, Teddy Tahu Rhodes has the agility and charm to pull off the role of Billy, and his singing has almost as much richness and warmth as that of Dwayne Croft in the clip linked above. Tenor Philip Langridge is convincing and moving as the conscience-torn Vere. John Wegner is a very menacing Claggart, and also has a fine voice. Again, for a taste, here’s James Morris performing Claggart’s aria, modeled on lago’s Credo from Verdi’s Otello.
Of course this is not Verdi’s Otello, far less HMS Pinafore. There are a couple of moving arias, and some powerful choruses, but on the whole there is not much by way of melody. In some ways, it’s more like a play delivered in recitative, the orchestra providing a magnificent tone-poem to accentuate the action and the moods. But it’s great entertainment, both dramatically and musically, as long as you’re not expecting something different.