Morgen zal het al zeventig jaar geleden zijn dat in the Royal Opera House in Londen, “Billy Budd” in première ging, een opera van Benjamin Britten, naar het werk van Herman Melville.

E. M. Forster had an interest in the novella, which he discussed in his Clark lectures at Cambridge University. Forster had admired Britten’s music since 1937 when he attended a performance of the play The Ascent of F6 (for which Britten wrote incidental music). Forster met Britten in October 1942, when he heard Peter Pears (Britten’s partner) perform Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo at the National Gallery. In 1948, Britten and Forster discussed whether Forster might write an opera libretto. They agreed on Billy Budd as a work to be adapted into an opera, with a formal meeting in January 1949 to discuss the project. Forster worked with Eric Crozier, a regular Britten collaborator, to write the libretto. Scholar Hanna Rochlitz has studied the adaptation and collaboration in detail.

While Britten was composing the music, the Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini premiered his one-act operatic setting of Billy Budd at the 1949 Venice International Festival. This disturbed Britten, but Ghedini’s opera gained little notice.

Britten originally intended the title role for Geraint Evans, who prepared it but withdrew because it lay too high for his voice. Britten then chose Theodor Uppman to replace him, and Evans sang a different role, that of Mr Flint.

When Britten conducted the opera’s premiere, in its original form of four acts, the performance received 15 curtain calls. Critical reaction to the premiere, according to a December 1951 New York Times article, was “a very good press and a very fair one, enthusiastic if not really ecstatic”Billy Budd received its United States première in 1952 in performances by the Indiana University Opera Company. In 1952, NBC television presented a condensed version of the opera. Performances of the original version fell off in number in the subsequent years. The original four-act version has been occasionally revived, such as at the Vienna State Opera in 2001 and 2011.

In 1960, Britten revised the score into a two-act version, in preparation for a BBC broadcast. The first performance of the revised two-act version was on 9 January 1964 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Georg Solti. The 1966 BBC Television broadcast was conducted by Charles Mackerras, with Peter Glossop (baritone) as Billy, Peter Pears as Vere, and Michael Langdon as Claggart. The 1967 Decca studio recording was made of the two-act version; the recording sessions were attended by staff from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Several academic studies investigate various thematic undertones in the opera, including homosexuality and salvation. (Wikipedia)

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