Opera. The innocent must be destroyed. Swedish premiere for Britten's heart-rending drama Billy Budd. Peter Mattei is making a special appearance for us in the title role.
"A dazzling production" Svenska Dagbladet
"… deeply moving." Svenska Dagbladet
"Unbelievably topical" Dagens Nyheter
"A fantastic event to have witnessed." Göteborgs-Posten
"A triumph for Peter Mattei" Dagens Nyheter
Introduction with musical entertainment
The introductions to Billy Budd begin with some musical entertainment.
The Small Stage 1 hour prior to performance.
Admission is free, but seating is limited.
Abraham & Isaac by Benjamin Britten
September 14 and 29, October 4, 6, 9, 12.
Abraham: Ingemar Anderson (tenor)
Isaac: Daniel Carlsson (counter tenor)
At the piano: Joakim Kallhed
The Göteborg Opera Treble Chorus sings Britten
September 18, 21 and 25.
From Benjamin Brittens "Cabaret Songs"
September 17 and 20.
Susanne Albertus, mezzosoprano
At the piano: Daniel Olmarker
Watch a film clip from Billy Budd
We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten - England's most prominent opera composer - with a Swedish premiere of his heart-rending drama Billy Budd from 1952, one of Britten's few operas for a symphony orchestra. It is a tale of a human's right to rebel, and psychological power struggles within a male-dominated heirarchy – Billy Budd only has roles for men.
In the original libretto, Billy Budd takes place on a ship. Handsome young sailor Billy arouses everyone's sympathies – as well as desire in some cases – and is falsely accused of mutiny. He is in a weak position, partly because of his stammer which makes it hard for him to express himself when agitated. He cannot adequately defend himself, and is sentenced to death.
Director Richard Jones has set the story in an English boarding school, with its tendency for bullying and underlying homophobia. The production comes from the Frankfurt Opera, where it was highly acclaimed. Richard Jones' Assistant Director Katharina Thoma will be responsible for our production. As in Frankfurt, Billy Budd will be played by one of the most dazzling international opera stars – baritone and Court Singer (Hovsångare) Peter Mattei, who is returning to our opera house after an absence of 13 years. The upright Captain Vere's role (originally written for Britten's life partner, tenor Peter Pears) will be played by Mathias Zachariassen. Billy's nemesis, Master-at-arms John Claggart, is interpreted alternately by bass Clive Bayley from the original production and The Göteborg Opera's own Mats Almgren. Experienced Britten conductor, Jan Latham-Koenig, most recently made a special appearance with us in Thaïs.
After the huge success of Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten's breakthrough opera, at Sadlers Wells in London in 1945, his operatic creativity really got going. For a time, in principle, he achieved one work a year – The Rape of Lucretia in 1946, inspired by classical antiquity; the comical Albert Herring in 1947. Sceptical of the great conventional opera establishment, he founded the English Opera Group and both of the works mentioned are chamber operas. However, people wanted to get the better of his scepticism and have him write more large-format operas. Billy Budd was originally staged at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London in 1951, with the composer himself conducting.
The idea had been conceived much earlier, during Britten's years in the USA at the start of the Second World War. Herman Melville's novel Billy Budd had been finished in 1891, shortly before the death of the author, and was first published in 1924 (today Melville is best known for Moby Dick, yet another novel set onboard a ship). The English author, E.M. Forster, a full generation older than Britten, got Britten interested, having already become acquainted with the novel in the USA. However, as a novelist, Forster maintained that he was not used to writing for the stage and another librettist, Eric Crozier, was engaged. The three men sketched out an opera in four acts with all of the roles for men only, since the action played out onboard a ship called The Indomitable.
The libretto follows the Melville book fairly faithfully. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Britain is at war with France and the young, unspoilt Billy Budd is recruited into the warship's crew. He is loved by everyone, and really has only one fault: he stammers. Despite the title role for a young baritone, the story's narrator is the ship's commander, Captain Vere, written for Britten's life partner, tenor Peter Pears. Just like his antithesis, the malevolent bass role John Claggart, he is fascinated, even attracted by Billy. Claggart cannot endure his own attraction to the young man and decides to destroy Billy. He accuses him of mutiny, and Billy is unable to defend himself due to his stammer. Instead he knocks Claggart down with a blow that turns out to be fatal. Captain Vere is forced against his own personal convictions to sentence Billy to death. The end of the novel has Vere dying during a sea battle shortly afterwards, with Billy's name on his lips. It is also indicated that the "attraction" was due to Vere being the foundling Billy's real father. However, the opera ends with an epilogue, in which, many years later, Vere still blames himself for Billy's death.
For this, Britten wrote his very finest and most striking music, in which the sea is present in every bar, just as it is in Peter Grimes. The principal roles and the many secondary roles are strongly characterised. The great orchestral movement can swell from individual solo instruments, as in Billy's touching final aria, to enormous choral scenes with complex ensembles, as in the scene in which the battle against the French lets loose – in the latter, Britten's strong pacifist tendency also emerges.
Despite reasonable success at its premiere, the work didn't gain popularity quickly. Britten revised the work before a TV production some years later. Four acts became two, as he had composed a number of additional intermezzos for scene changes, and he also removed a scene from the first act in which Captain Vere instructs his crew. This film recording is now available on DVD, in which viewers can enjoy seeing Pears play Vere. On stage, this new version had its premiere at Covent Garden in 1964, with none other than Georg Solti conducting. Some years later, Britten himself conducted Billy Budd during a recording for Decca, on that occasion also with Pears and with baritone Peter Glossop in the title role. Even today, this recording still acts as a virtually inimitable reference piece. In Germany, the work was staged in locations that included Hamburg in 1972, with Sweden's Harald Ek playing Vere.
Although it is now staged throughout the world, it was 2001 before it had its Scandinavian premiere, when it was staged in Copenhagen in the old opera house with Bo Skovhus playing Billy. The Göteborg Opera production will be the first time this opera has been staged in Sweden, if you discount an abridged version for piano performed in Swedish prisons in the early 1990s. Our production comes from Frankfurt, with director Richard Jones, having moved the action from onboard a ship to an English boarding school with a naval background. It became an unprecedented success there in 2007, and has been reprised in Frankfurt several times, in addition to having been staged in Amsterdam. Our production also has major Swedish singing star, Peter Mattei, playing the title role, just as he did when this version was first staged in Frankfurt.