Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Grand Palace Hall, Ion Câmpineanu 28, Bucharest, Romania
These few words are merely a means of documenting one of the absolute highlights of the Enescu Festival 2023 (whatever happens next), a concert performance of Benjamin Britten’s men-only (cast and chorus) 1951 opera Billy Budd, to a libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on Herman Melville’s novella, given in the 1964 revision when four Acts became two.
Although a non-staged, undirected rendition, the singers, dressed smart-casual, each fully commanding and projecting of their respective characters, vocally interactive, helped create a gripping theatrical dimension, Hannu Lintu (chief conductor of Finnish National Opera) finding a satisfying balance of dramatic urgency and reflective largesse, and with a keen ear for Britten’s scoring (large orchestra including saxophone, harp and two sets of timpani), the George Enescu Philharmonic thoroughly prepared and playing with brilliance (horn and piccolo solos) and subtly dynamic support.
Billy Budd was sung in English, the audience offered a Romanian translation flashed to the back wall together with natty and illuminating graphics, very stylish complements to the story. A great deal of effort had gone into this one (one-off?) performance that proved so very rewarding. I hope there are plans to preserve it.
Britten Billy Budd (concert version)
PETER WEDD Captain Vere of HMS Indomitable (tenor)
VILLE RUSANEN Billy Budd (baritone)
TIMO RIIHONEN John Claggart, Master-at-Arms (bass)
JONATHAN MCGOVERN Mr. Redburn, First Lieutenant (baritone)
ANDREW FOSTER-WILLIAMS Mr. Flint, Sailing Master (bass-baritone)
DANIEL OKULITCH Lieutenant Ratcliffe (bass-baritone)
CHRISTOPHER GILLETT Red Whiskers, an impressed man (tenor)
MIHAI DAMIAN Donald (baritone)
MATTI TURUNEN Dansker, an old seaman (bass)
TUOMAS MIETTOLA a Novice (tenor)
CHARLES RICE the Novice’s Friend (baritone)
COSMIN IFRIM Squeak (tenor)
BARNABY REA Bosun (bass)
JACOB PHILLIPS First Mate (baritone)
EDWARD GRINT Second Mate (bass)
PAUL CURIEVICI Maintop (tenor)
IOSIF ION PRUNNER conductor of the choir
CARMEN LIDIA VIDU multimedia director
Captain Vere, an old man, is haunted by a moment in his life when he was tested and found wanting.
Act I Scene 1
Years earlier, on board HMS Indomitable, a British man-of-war, during the French wars of 1797, sailors are at work. A boarding party returns from a passing merchant ship, the Rights o’ Man, with three men impressed for naval service. John Claggart, Master-at-Arms, interviews them but only the last, Billy Budd, pleases the officers, despite his stammer. But his impassioned farewell to the Rights o’ Man is misunderstood as a revolutionary declaration, and Claggart, responsible for discipline, is told to watch Billy. He sets his corporal, Squeak, to harass Billy. A Novice returns from a flogging, and Donald and Dansker caution the new recruits that no one escapes punishment. They warn against Claggart while declaring their devotion to Vere.
A week later, Vere meets with two officers in his cabin and they discuss the recent naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore. Vere discounts their fears about Billy’s influence on the men. Another officer arrives to announce that enemy land has been sighted.
Below the decks, the same evening, Billy discovers Squeak meddling with his kit-bag and they fight. Claggart arrives and has Squeak arrested. Alone, Claggart voices his determination to destroy Billy. He forces the Novice to try to bribe Billy into leading a mutiny. Billy awakens to hear the Novice’s proposal. Furious at the idea of mutiny, he can only stammer. Dansker tells Billy that Claggart is behind it all, but Billy refuses to believe him.
Act II Scene 1
Some days later, Claggart is telling Vere that there is a dangerous sailor aboard, when a French ship is sighted. The crew are called to action stations and a shot is fired, but the wind fails, the mist returns and the chase is abandoned. Claggart returns to Vere and again accuses Billy of planning a mutiny. Vere orders both men to his cabin.
Billy arrives in Vere’s cabin to be confronted by Claggart’s false accusation of inciting mutiny. Unable to speak to defend himself, Billy strikes Claggart, who falls dead. Vere summons his officers to an immediate drumhead court martial, knowing that the penalty for striking a superior officer is death. Aware of the injustice of the death sentence in this instance, the officers appeal to Vere for guidance; he remains silent, the officers reluctantly resolve that Billy should be hanged at dawn.
The next morning, shortly before dawn, Billy awaits his execution.
On deck, at four o’clock the same morning, the crew assemble to witness the hanging. Billy’s final words are ‘Starry Vere, God bless you!’ After the hanging the crew turn on the officers in anger. When they are ordered below, their rebellion subsides into sullen obedience.
Vere, now an old man, knows he has failed Billy and himself: he could have saved him. He receives Billy’s last words as a kind of benediction, redeeming him at the last.