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Britten,   Billy Budd: (Concert Version) Soloists, Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Members of the LSO St Luke’s Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor) Gregory Ahss (Guest Leader).  Barbican Hall, London 9.12.2007 (AO)


Ian Bostridge (Captain Vere), Nathan Gunn (Billy Budd), Gidon Saks (Claggart), Neal Davies (Mr Redburn),  Jonathan Lemalu (Mr Flint), Matthew Rose (Lt Ratcliffe), Alasdair Elliot (Red Whiskers), Daniel Teadt (Donald), Matthew Best (Dansker), Andrew Kennedy (Novice), Andrew Tortise (Squeak), Mark Stone (Bosun), Adam Green (First Mate), Andrew Staples (Maintop), Darren Jeffry (Second Mate). Roderick Williams (Arthur Jones)

“Britten is the Meyerbeer of our age” said Gerald Finzi after the first ever performance of Billy Budd in 1951. Meyerbeer’s very success caused extreme jealousy in Wagner, who also despised Mendelssohn  and  jealousy, perhaps,  causes Claggart’s hate for Billy Budd.  Claggart, even hates cabin boys. A charismatic figure like Billy stands no chance with him..

Britten is so well known these days that it’s easy to assume we really “know” him and that perhaps, he can only be appreciated in our more modern times.  Finzi, for example, was bothered by Budd's  “homo-eroticism”.  It’s there, yes, but Billy Budd is as profound a psychodrama as any Greek tragedy.  This performance showed great insight into the deeper emotional levels of this opera, and how Britten realised them musically.  So much attention is given to his writing for voice that his orchestration is sometimes underestimated but  performance revealed Billy Budd as a powerful piece of “symphonic” writing, intuition connecting with musical expression.

Billy Budd is, of course, one of Britten´s innocents doomed to be destroyed. Yet there´s more to the story than a struggle between good and evil.  Billy stammers when his life depends on him speaking clearly.  Like Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Captain Vere pulls back from the brink at  critical junctures.  Billy Budd, as some have noted, was written during the McCarthy era, and Britten, who was no fool, understood the  wider implications.  Billy casually refers to the Rights of Man, the name  his last ship.  Significantly, though, Britten makes much of the paranoid political hysteria of 1797, adding more pointed meaning.  He seems to understand emotional reticence and the dangers of being explicit.  Take heed, then, of the oblique and unspoken in  Britten !  

Harding’s emphasis on the orchestra is psychologically as well as musically astute.  Orchestrally, this was so vivid a performance that staging would have been a distraction and   here the ocean was a protagonist, every bit as much as the singing roles.  Indeed, against the wild forces of nature, the 'Indomitable'  isn’t indomitable; it’s vulnerable, and can be destroyed by fate as capriciously as Billy himself is destroyed.  Through the orchestra, the ocean took central stage, turbulent and intense.  Huge crescendos built up like mighty waves, but even more impressive was the undertow of dark, murmuring sound that surged ever forwards. Above this, currents flowed diagonally across the orchestra, first violins flowing to brass and basses and back, just as ships lurch back and forth.  You could get seasick if you focussed too hard, but that was the point, for Britten is showing that the “floating world” aboard ship is unsteady, far removed from the certainties of dry land.  Just like the enveloping mists, all points of moral reference are hidden.   “Lost in the infinite sea”, sings Captain Vere, a refrain that recurs repeatedly, in voice and in the orchestra.

This ship is in full sail, you can almost feel the wind and see the open horizon.  This is an important to the narrative, because it reflects the sense that supernatural forces are propelling Billy and Captain Vere inevitably towards their fate.  More subtly though, this also expresses something about why Billy loves being up high in the foretop, riding the rigging, high up on the mast.  There’s more to him than sea shanties:  he’s such a free spirit that even death cannot extinguish him.  That’s why, perhaps, that he moves ahead, always forward, instead of dwelling on past sorrows.  “No more looking down from the heights to the depths !” he sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm…I see where she’s bound for.”  The orchestra has been hinting at this all along.

Billy may be the hero, but the action is happening in Captain Vere’s mind as he contemplates the dilemma he faces.  The resolution comes when finally, in his old age, he understands what Billy’s blessing meant.  Britten’s music for Captain Vere is more elaborate than for any other role in the opera, reflecting Vere’s status as the real locus of the plot. Captain Vere thinks in terms of Scylla and Charybdis, and of Plutarch. The men don’t call him “Starry” Vere for nothing, and the “God Bless you, Starry Vere” chorus is beautifully transcendent.   Like Billy, he lives way above the decks, and he can see the whole panorama because he’s on a different level to the other crew – which is  why the men love him because they know he understands.  Vere knows Claggart is “a veritable Argus”, who uses spies and plays people off against each other while the First Lieutenant, who is superficial, merely squawks “Beg Pardon ?”  This contrast is clearly defined in the music.

Bostridge’s singing expressed the complexity of Britten’s conception. When singing of Claggart, his voice curls and words are spat out, for Claggart is snake like and venomous.  Captain Vere may be intelligent, but he’s wrong footed by Claggart’s venal cunning.  When he realises how he’s been manipulated against Billy, Bostridge colours his words with heart rending anguish.  “My life’s broken. It is not his trial, it’s mine, mine.  It is I who the devil awaits”. That’s why it gives him such peace at the end of his life, when he realises that Billy’s blessing has freed him from guilt.  His final song echoes Billy’s, for at last he  too, understands how Billy was able to move beyond death.  On some level, Captain Vere’s redemption may actually also Britten’s too, for the part is written with such detail and care.

Gidon Saks replaced John Relyea at a late stage. Any bass baritone can sound magisterial in this role, but Saks had the voice for it.  Nonetheless, although Claggart is a brute, he gets ahead by venal dishonesty and bullying.  Billy, on the other hand, doesn’t play games a concept that  Claggart can’t even understand.  So while Saks was authoritative and magisterial, Claggart is slime of the lowest order and is   not meant to impress.  This sets any singer with a dilemma: to sound  sound menacing, yet convey the fundamental shallowness and dishonesty of the character at the same time.  It’s a tall order, and Saks, though strong, needed more nuance.  There’s also the problem of musical balance, for the Vere/Billy/Claggart dynamic needs to be finely judged, and whoever sings the roles needs to sound right without overwhelming the others.

While Bostridge stood up to Saks, Nathan Gunn’s Billy was outclassed from the start.  His Billy is charming, and definitely lovable, but there’s more to the character than that.  Although he’s called “Baby” by his shipmates, Billy isn’t necessarily young, for, as Thomas Allen showed, his wisdom comes from something other than naivety. As Billy explains when he faces death “I’m strong, and I know it, and I’ll stay strong”. So where does this inner strength come from?  We know that Billy will miss this “grand, rough world”, but something keeps him moving on.  Perhaps Captain Vere intuits that it has something to do with his love of life and his transparent goodness, but again, the hints are hidden in the orchestra.  Gunn’s Billy is more “O beauty, O handsome” than “O goodness” because that goodness is so hard to express. However, I think Gunn vindicated himself beautifully in the song, “Through the port comes moonshine astray” where his sensitivity and gentleness at last came to the fore.  Behind the Billy who jokes and sings nonsense ditties, there’s a more vulnerable person, who only shows himself when he’s alone and unobserved – like Vere, like Aschenbach and like Britten himself.   It took me a while to appreciate just how subtle this characterisation was, but it’s valid and quite moving – another example of how interesting a thoughtful approach to Britten can be.

Neal Davies stood out as a Mr Redburn with personality,  despite the constraints of the role.  Mark Stone as Bosun also made a bigger impact than his part allowed.  With so many minor roles, focus shifts, yet again, to the way they operate in the context of the whole, rather than standing out, as if, like the instruments in the orchestra, they are playing solo parts as well as furthering the narrative.  Note the vignettes, such as between The Novice and his friend, Arthur Jones, a lovely set piece.

Britten has been Harding’s speciality since he was in his teens, when he was conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Most of his career has been spent in European circles, where Britten’s music is perhaps less performed than in Britain, but this is an advantage because it makes his approach  feel so individual.  He has also worked with the LSO and with Bostridge for over 12 years, so the partnership is deeply rooted.  Hence the vividness and cohesion in this performance.  Take for example the Battle sequence, which bristled with vigour and alertness.  There, extreme tension built up in the orchestra, instruments and voices traversing the music in stark staccato, and disciplined formation. Everything seems to be going on at the same time in different directions, voices interjecting, solo instruments leaping into prominence, the choir at full blast.  Yet it’s all clearly defined and distinct.  To stretch the maritime metaphor a little further: a conductor is like the captain of a ship and   there are many reasons why precision gets results.  Conductors, like captains, don’t waffle aimlessly and confuse their players, but lead their crew purposefully into action.

One of Harding’s particular strengths is his ability to focus on the fundamental direction of whatever music he conducts.  Thus he understands the Battle in the wider context of the opera: jus as the men are about to board the French ship, mist descends and the French escape.  The excitement builds to fever pitch but descends into anti-climax.  Nothing is resolved. It’s another  parallel to Captain Vere’s dilemma, when he pulls back from saving Billy even though he knows in his heart that he could /should do so, if only he dared.

A recording was  made at this performance.  When it is released, by EMI/Virgin, listen to the detail in the playing and to the whole over-arching structure. Above all, however, the value of this performance rests in the ideas and insights that it offers about Britten himself, the man and his music.

Anne Ozorio


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