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Cat. No. CHAN 9826(3) Price: £21 No. of discs: 3
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CHAN 9826 - Britten: Billy Budd
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Available From: 20 April 2000
The novelist Herman Melville wrote his first draft of what he finally called Billy Budd in 1886. It was a thirty-two-line poem with a short prose introduction. The third draft of the story, by now a novella, ends with the poem which was its starting point. In 1948 it was agreed that the novelist E.M. Forster would supply Britten with a libretto for Billy Budd – it was to be Forster’s first libretto – and he knew Melville’s novella from lectures he had given on it at Cambridge.

The setting is a warship – HMS Indomitable – in the Royal Navy commanded by Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, and John Claggart – the evil Master-at-Arms –s the opposite of the young innocent, stammering Billy Budd. With the fear of mutiny ever present, Claggart brings a false charge of mutiny against Billy, and Vere sees them both in his cabin. Asked to defend himself, Billy stammers and, in his frustration aims a blow at Claggart who falls dead. At a hastily (and illegally) summoned court-martial, Vere refuses to save Billy who is duly hanged. The opera is framed by a prologue and epilogue sung by Vere as an old man. Filled with guilt and remorse, still haunted by these events.

The appeal of Billy Budd as a subject to both Forster and Britten is easily appreciated. Melville’s novella is on one level a splendidly dramatic story; on another it has wider meanings: the Indomitable is a metaphor for the world and there are biblical allusions – Billy seen as the Christ figure with his one and only predestined end. In Melville’s text there is use of homo-erotic symbolism and of the words ‘erect’ and ‘ejaculate’. It is all part of the book’s theme of Good and Evil, and in this context the destruction of innocence by authority.

The Opera was first performed in December 1951, but in 1960 Britten reduced it from four acts to two making a tauter and more dramatic version, the version recorded here.
Reviews

‘A strong challenger to Britten’s own historic recording of his searing opera and perhaps the best thing Richard Hickox has yet done on disc. The Chandos recording quality is first rate, the chorus overwhelming and the casting inspired’.
Sunday Telegraph

 

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