A late flowering for a great Britten

When Billy Budd opens Glyndebourne's season tomorrow it will bring the curtain down on an old feud, says Lynne Walker

It's not really our kind of thing, you know," declared Glyndebourne owner John Christie to his friends arriving for the premiere of a comedy opera by Benjamin Britten. What he and his brigade of white-tie supporters would have made of Britten's powerfully moving, all-male masterpiece, Billy Budd, is anyone's guess.

When Billy Budd opens the Glyndebourne Festival tomorrow it will be its first airing at the Sussex opera house, nearly 60 years after its acclaimed Covent Garden premiere. Perhaps because the score calls for the largest orchestra of any Britten opera, perhaps because it requires the atmosphere and acoustic of the new, enlarged theatre or perhaps because of its homoerotic undercurrent, it's been shamefully overlooked in the series of fine Britten productions at Glyndebourne since the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia in 1946.

Now Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, makes his operatic debut directing Billy Budd. Based on Herman Melville's tale about the battle between goodness and malignity on board a man-of-war, the opera – with a libretto co-written by E M Forster – revolves around the cross-currents of justice, duty and compassion. Beneath its surface there's an identifiable element of sexual frustration. Joan Cross, who had created the role of Lucretia, was "terrified by the cruelty of it" while the composer Michael Tippett particularly hated the moment "when the Novice is brought on and he's been flogged, like a Crucifixion."

Britten's relations with John Christie had begun cordially enough, despite their differences. Christie, an eccentric, Eton-educated, English landowner, and recipient of the Military Cross, had little in common with the chippy young composer who had spent the early years of the war as a conscientious objector in America. Both, however, saw the advantage of collaboration in the formation of the Glyndebourne English Opera Company.

The Rape of Lucretia, the first work to be put on by these unlikely bedfellows, marked the re-opening of the opera house after the war. Two weeks into rehearsal, Britten reported that Glyndebourne was "an excellent place to work in". But soon one observer noted "a marked coolness from Ben towards John Christie". According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Britten, part of the trouble was Christie's John Bullish manner, while Britten's partner, Peter Pears, heard some "very ill-informed and ill-timed criticism" from Sir John, who commented that Lucretia had "no music in it".

After a loss-making tour of Lucretia, Christie was left seriously out of pocket. But he gamely revived Lucretia the following year, along with another Britten premiere. By the time Albert Herring opened in 1947, there was what Carpenter describes as "open warfare" between Christie and Britten. After the premiere of Albert Herring, Britten described the founder of Glyndebourne Festival Opera as "a mischievous, mad old man". He wasn't invited back. Not in tune with either contemporary music or homosexuality, John Christie didn't feel any need to offer an olive branch, though he did recognise Britten's extraordinary talent.

Very soon after succeeding his father as chairman in 1962, George Christie was disappointed that Britten turned down the invitation to compose an opera for the festival due to his commitment to his own Aldeburgh Festival. Glyndebourne eagerly offered to put on any new Britten opera in the future. It wasn't until 1981, however, five years after Britten's death, that a work of his – A Midsummer Night's Dream – was seen again at the festival. Between then and now there have been thrilling Glyndebourne productions of The Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice and another Albert Herring. This staging of Billy Budd is long overdue.

'Billy Budd', Glyndebourne Festival (01273 813813; Glyndebourne.com) in rep tomorrow to 27 June

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower