I guess that when I first heard that there was an opera called Billy Budd, which had its libretto based on Herman Melville’s book, I thought that it was going to be a sort of cross between H.M.S. Pinafore and Gregory Peck in Moby Dick. I did not realise that this opera is not precisely a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure story but is actually a profound meditation on war, duty and homosexuality. A lot has been written about the typology and allegory of this opera. Much has been made of the social comment inherent in the text. But the bottom-line is that this is a great story, full of fine characterisation and having much action. Over and above this, there is a good deal of reflection, a balance of good and evil and even love. It is a tragedy only in the sense that Budd is executed. Love and goodness are seen in many parts of this opera and triumph in the final scene.
I came to Billy Budd remarkably early in my musical career. In fact it was about the third ‘grand opera’ that I had heard. The first two were Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover and The Poisoned Kiss. These were part of the 1972 centenary celebrations. A few months later I heard a Radio 3 broadcast of Welsh Opera’s Billy Budd. I was confused by it. After all I was only eighteen! What, with no obvious arias, no diva giving it all she had and an all-male cast: it seemed a bit strange. But even then, there was something indefinable that appealed to me: something about the music that has stayed in my memory for many years. In spite of the fact that Errol Flynn was a million miles away, I have come to regard this as one of my favourites operas. Full stop.
Please read my full review at MusicWeb International