I re-watched the Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Billy Budd this week. This opera is obviously one of Britten’s most stunning (along with Death in Venice, which I also love). One of my favourite aspects of the opera is the tension between the upper and lower decks, and the way that tension plays out in the music. For example, the “heave away” song that the impressed sailors sing while scrubbing the deck as they’re overseen by the cruel master-at-arms becomes a kind of theme for the discontent of the lower decks, and recurring throughout the opera, and haunting the officers — including Captain Vere — who are ever afraid of mutiny, until it finally appears in the threatening mutterings and growls of Billy’s messmates after his death by hanging on the yardarm.
The Glyndebourne production is beautiful, I think. The word “claustrophobic”keeps coming up in all the production notes and reviews of the set, and it’s absolutely apt. But the casting of Jacques Imbrailio as Billy is what makes the opera — Imbrailio in voice, gesture, and facial expression, conveys the goodness of Billy with perfect conviction. And the ability to convince an audience that Billy is, as Vere, Dansker, Claggart, and Billy himself believe, the embodiment of goodness and innocence is absolutely crucial to tragedy of the opera.
I find myself torn while watching this opera: it evokes and also allays all my cynicism. Everything about the opera supports the reading of Billy as genuinely good — a Christ figure who is fated to both rid the ship of the evil John Claggart, and to die for that action. Claggart himself sees Billy as “handsomely good” and seems to be unable to bear Billy’s goodness, instead actively seeking to destroy it. And the officers and Captain Vere acknowledge both Billy’s goodness and loyalty and Claggart’s cruelty to the men and his sneaking nature (Vere refers to him as a hundred-eyed Argus and is disgusted by, though also benefits from, Claggart’s network of spies on board). Vere’s impulse is to disbelieve Claggart’s lies about Billy’s attempts at mutiny, trusting instead to Billy’s good character and reputation. And because of Claggart’s enmity against Billy and his abuse of his power — both generally, and in the way he sets up the courtroom scene so as to provoke Billy to anger — we too are never invited to believe that Billy is in any way to be blamed for the blow against Claggart that unintentionally kills the master-of-arms.
Forster and Crozier’s libretto allows Billy to instead present himself as a tool of fate or the divine — he is fated to kill Claggart, ridding the ship of his evil, just as Vere is fated to kill Billy for the act. But Vere himself acknowledges, in his confessional soliloquies framing the opera, that his refusal to overrule the articles and save Billy were in fact an error — possibly a sin — and that only Billy’s forgiveness and blessing of him in his last words save Vere from condemnation.
So Billy’s goodness is convincing, and is in fact what makes his death so unbearably tragic for the audience. But we are also told all along that the things for which he dies — belief in fate, in England as the preserver of freedom, in the articles of war, in Captain Vere — are all misguided, hollow, or false. Billy needn’t have died if Vere had defended him rather than washing his hands of the matter and leaving the ruling for the other officers to decide. The articles of war defend unjust men with power like Claggart while failing to protect powerless victims like Billy. England’s fight against France is not done out of a defence of the freedom of the English people, but of fear of their uprising. And many of the sailors who fight that war are press-ganged, and trapped in the horribly claustrophobic environment of the ship, beaten by cruel men like Claggart. So Billy dies, a man who is perhaps better than the causes he willingly dies for. And his death rightly haunts Vere forever.
16 October 2014