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Billy Budd

Opera in two acts. Op. 50 (1951)

Libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier adapted from the story by Herman Melville

First performance of original version

1 December 1951 Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Billy Budd was written during 1950-51 and first performed as part of the ‘Festival of Britain’ celebrations. In 1960, Britten revised the work, contracting the original four acts into two. The work is based on Herman Melville’s posthumous novel Billy Budd, Foretopman which Britten and his librettists transformed into an opera of great musico-dramatic power and psychological subtlety. Although Billy is the opera’s eponymous hero, the real focus of the work is the moral dilemma facing Captain Vere who, confronted with an agonising decision between saving Billy and his sense of duty as the ship’s Captain is at the centre of the drama (a theme further explored by Britten in Gloriana). Billy Budd employs the largest orchestra of any Britten opera, capable of unleashing an elemental power when the moment demands it, but in general, the orchestration favours the more sharply etched, transparent textures developed in the chamber operas.

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Britten's Billy Budd