Sunday, June 05, 2016


The orphan is liked but immediately victimized by the perverts


The re-mastering of the original BBC production of this opera by Benjamin Britten is a real treat with Peter Pears. The story, adapted from Melville by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier is a fascinating tale about the evilness of human justice on a ship under the Acts of War and other regulations having to do with court-martialing anyone for any misdemeanor in war time on a man-of-war and the opera deals with a lot of crimes all punished by death, an accusation of planning a mutiny, the actual striking of a superior officer, the murdering (though it was manslaughter) of this officer, and treason of the King and the country in the face of the enemy. Falsely accused by his superior officer, the foundling (who never managed to say “orphan” when asked about his family because of his stuttering, though he managed to say “foundling”) and volunteer in the royal service against the French in 1797, Billy Budd is unable to defend himself with words because he is silenced by a fit of stuttering again. So he hits the accuser and kills him, accidentally or incidentally but not with the intention of killing him. But that accuser is his superior officer, hence Billy Budd deserves death for hitting his superior officer and committing murder. He has to be hanged twice but they will reduce it to once. The point is not that miscarriage of justice, but the all-male environment that creates tension and stress that is at times hardly manageable.

The said superior officer is “down on” Billy Budd, in other words attracted by him sexually or at least emotionally, which he cannot accept probably both because that questions his masculinity and his authority over the men under him, and hence he decides to have him pay for that unmanly attraction of his. But Billy Budd is liked by everyone and the captain is himself attracted to that young and handsome foundling. This time we cannot say the attraction is sexual but the attraction is a deep emotion that makes the captain like Billy Budd and vice versa makes Billy Budd like the captain. In an all-male environment all kinds of distortions can occur in the relationships among the men in this closed environment that the ship is. But that’s not what Benjamin Britten tries to show. He tries to show the dilemma in which the captain was when the events took place. He had to stick to what he had seen and avoid what he may have sensed or felt at the time. He then stuck to his testimony that meant two death penalties. But in his old age staged at the beginning in one flashback in the opera and at the end, that captain acknowledges the idea that he could have saved Billy Budd because he had the power to pardon the convicted man, and even before he could have testified about the loyalty of Billy Budd, hence the accidental and provoked assault on Billy Budd’s superior officer by this superior officer’s absurd accusation.

But he didn’t and thus he, the captain, is to be tried in and by another court, a divine court in which he believes, and he believes this one is not going to be as lenient as Billy Budd. But the following episode is the main moment of that story. Just before being hanged and released to the deep sea, Billy Budd actually forgives the captain and that saves the captain’s soul, but then the captain could have pardoned on the spot and he did not do it, and that does not save his soul, that dooms his mental peace and his future after death. That’s the story of a sea episode in which a captain endorses a miscarriage of justice just to keep his liking for the accused secret in an all-male environment. It is very similar to Peter Grimes, except that in Peter Grimes the young apprentices die due to accidents, and yet a retired captain tells Peter Grimes to go at sea and sink himself in his boat and he does it. Miscarriage of justice again. But it is an opera, so what is so musical in this story.

The music and the singing are systematically dramatic and somber like hell. Instruments often run one against the others, creating conflicting points, even at times hiatuses, and that gives to the words and the images since it is a visual show a tremendous depth. But there are some moments when this depth becomes a tremendous elevation. Before his execution Billy Budd is visited by an older sailor who brings him a final drink and a biscuit. That scene is full of emotion and Billy Budd concludes his making his peace with the whole world and the injustice he is going to suffer with a final sentence that reads as follows when sung: “That’s all, all, all, and that’s enough, that’s enough, that’s enough. This is a marvelous direct allusion to Solomon’s trial or wisdom (due to the two repetitive triplets in the sentence) but it shows that the captain was the one who was confronted to a decision that could be compared to Solomon’s decision: Billy Budd is guilty twice and he is going to die, but this time the captain did not react like the real mother did in Solomon’s story, accepting to lose her child for it to live, thus revealing she was the real mother, the captain did not accept to make public his liking for Billy Budd in order to enable him to live for purely egotistic considerations to avoid any innuendo about his masculinity of authority, let alone his sense of justice.

And that’s what is wrong with human justice: it is blind, deaf and mute: it does not see, does not hear and does not tell the truth. That’s why the text and the music are full of such triplets when dealing with life and the relations between the men on the ship. There are dozens of examples. Dankster declares that he “is too old for fun, for dancing, for women.” The three judges declare “We’ve no choice, we’ve no choice, we’ve no choice” and this trinity is crucified by a final repetition “no choice.” And at the end Billy sings “turning, turning, turning heads away from the hoist and the belay,” with a double trinity, Solomon’s number anew and the allusion to his wisdom and his wise decisions. And the vicious and lying John Claggart, the master-at-arms, specifies his intention about Billy Budd as follows: “Nothing can defend you, nothing can defend you, nothing, nothing, nothing.” The first two phrases evoke some kind of war logic (he is at war against Billy Budd) and the final trinity builds up a pentacle of five “nothing” and that is devilish: he is so evil that the good of life is perverted into pure satanic evil with his warlike intention against his own men: if that is not treacherous, what is?

The music that accompanies the gathering of all the men and the arrival of Billy Budd for his execution is a real gem and diamond in the whole opera with rolling drums from time to time, with whining horns and mocking flutes that create a fake environment to introduce a fake sham of justice that is a real execution nevertheless. And the forgiving declaration of Billy Budd after the reading of the sentence “Starry Vere, God Bless you” shines like a dawning sun in that visual scene of an execution that was taking place in the middle of the night, under the light of the stars and that you never see except through the eyes and movements of those who look at it, of the beholders who are moved in some kind of maybe an intention of protest, and that is killed in the bud by the troops sent by the captain. This last scene of graphic voyeuristic indirect non-vision is a great way to be poignant without being over-realistic.

There is though a last remark I would like to add. This opera has a pattern I have already alluded to when comparing it with Peter Grimes. We have the sea again, we have some brutal life at sea and it is increased by the war going on. Once again it is the orphan, the foundling, the abandoned boy who is victimized by his superior, both his direct superior, the master-at-arms, and the captain of the ship himself who puts the three commanding officers who compose the court martial in a snaring situation to condemn Billy Budd on an incomplete testimony, which is in itself a crime in those Books of War, Billy Budd is thus the stranger in the crowd on the ship, the one who has no home and no family, as well as the victim of the situation, though this stranger among many is liked by all except one perverse individual. And it is this one individual who manages by his own death to trap everyone else in his lie. Remember Peter Grimes who was not liked by anyone but because an old spinster of a gossip ran a campaign of rumors against him, though she won in the end and yet saved her skin.


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