Conscience at sea

TLS, 11 June

Benjamin Britten
Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Lucy Walker, ed
New perspectives on his life and work
205pp. Boydell Press. £45. 978 184383 516 5

Shortly after the premiere of Billy Budd, at Covent Garden in December 1951, Benjamin Britten wrote to E. M. Forster. “I think you & Eric [Crozier] have written incomparably the finest libretto ever.” For his part, Forster had reservations about Britten’s setting of what, at the time, he considered “his most important piece of writing”, prompted by hearing a play-through of what was originally Act Two (the original four act version was revised to the now standard two acts in 1964). Forster found Britten’s music for John Claggart, the devious Master at Arms who drives the opera’s tragic action, “soggy”: “I want passion – love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonizing channel; a sexual discharge gone evil”.

Opinion remains divided on the merits of Britten’s score. For some, the music is simply too thin, both in terms of ideas and textures, to support the messianic scale of the conflict at its centre. For others it represents his coming of operatic age, when the seamless contrapuntal style he had been developing during the 1940s broke through to his stage music. Two factors favour the second view. The libretto possesses by itself a rare and profound musicality – due in part to the poetry that attaches itself to the jargon of the sea (odd in itself, given that technical language is often held to be the enemy of poetry) – to which Britten responds appropriately, in a manner similar to that of his many songs. Which is to say he sets the text rather than melodizes it. He attends to its rhythms and tonal demands, now and then throwing motivic tidbits to the swabs in the pit where, buffeted against the bantams and sparrowlegs, toplights and halyards amid a fury of belaying and hoisting, the orchestra fills like a sail before a freshening breeze. The second factor is that the opera, unlike Melville’s novella, is framed by a narrative device in which Captain Vere looks back on his past. For Vere the narrator, the sea no longer represents limitless opportunity so much as endless confusion. “I have tried to guide others rightly, but I have been lost on the infinite sea” – the word “infinite” floats on one of Britten’s trademark wave-form melismas. The perspective of confusion is therefore part of what is dramatized and the sparse, groundless counterpoint of the prologue and epilogue infiltrates the rest of the opera.

In Michael Grandage’s new production (the theatre director’s first opera), the old Captain Vere fully inhabits the stage occupied by his younger self. This becomes explicit near the end, when, capless and wigless, lit from elsewhere, he enters Billy’s cabin to witness the last moments of the young saviour he himself could not save; but it is clear throughout from John Mark Ainsley’s restrained, almost timid characterisation – as if the great “Starry Vere” is as distant from himself as from the crew who love him, Billy most of all.

Grandage’s Billy Budd represents, surprisingly, the able seaman’s first visit to Glyndebourne. The staging looks set fair, in part because Glyndebourne always has room for Britten, but also because of Christopher Oram’s magnificently claustrophobic set, a cross section of the lower decks of a ship constructed from steel clad in treated wood. The sense of immensity is coupled, appropriately, with one of indomitability. You'd think twice before decommissioning it. The first cast will be a hard act to follow, in particular the young South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, making his festival debut as Billy. The London Philharmonic, conducted by Mark Elder, let neither the detail nor the continually rising tension slip.

The immediate source of Vere’s moral confusion – the conflict between a King’s law and God’s – was familiar to Britten, though on a less cosmic scale. In one of several interesting essays in Lucy Walker’s edited collection of “New Perspectives” on the composer, Brian McMahon investigates the motivations behind the composer’s return to England with Peter Pears in 1942. McMahon looks past the authorized narrative, in which the composer’s love for his country was reawakened by Forster’s article about George Crabbe, to consider a variety of psychological and environmental concerns which helped Britten to dress up as pacifism his horror of physical confrontation and his sense of being exceptional. A key factor, hitherto overlooked, is the suggestion that Britten and Pears might well have been conscripted in the United States anyway. McMahon imputes no guilt or innocence to Britten, but simply examines the events and evidence. It is this critical distance, and the absence of the kind of for-or-against defensiveness which has often scarred Britten scholarship, that distinguishes Walker’s volume.

Most of the contributors are unfamiliar names, and the emphasis is less on establishing the composer’s uniqueness than on exploring the various national and international contexts in which his work acquired its meaning. J. P. E. Harper-Scott provides a compelling, if occasionally opaque, comparison of Salome with Tadzio, while Jane Brandon pursues Verdian influences in Britten – a line first suggested to me, and perhaps to her, by Christopher Wintle. One of the more surprising essays – by MaĆ©na Py – concerns the relatively widespread dissemination of Britten’s music in provincial France, beyond the reach of Pierre Boulez’s official disapproval. Beyond earshot, too, one supposes, of Vere and his officers, who make the toast: “The French: Down with Them”. The starry Captain warms to his theme – “France, the tyrant who wears the cap of liberty.” With Billy on his conscience, he might better wonder at the fit of his own cap.

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