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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 -1976)
Billy Budd
Captain Vere: Philip Langridge
Billy Budd: Thomas Allen
John Claggart: Richard van Allan
Mr. Redburn: Neil Howlett
Mr. Flint: Phillip Guy- Bromley
Mr.Ratcliffe: Clive Bayley
Red Whiskers: Edward Byles
Donald: Mark Richardson
Dansker: John Connell
Novice: Barry Banks
Squeak: Howard Milner
Novice’s Friend: Christopher Booth – Jones
Bosun: Malcolm Rivers
First Mate: Anthony Cunningham
Second Mate: Christopher Ross
Arthur Jones / Maintop: Richard Reaville
Cabin Boy: Oscar Ces
English National Opera Orchestra / David Atherton,English National Opera Chorus / Martin Handley, David Drummond
Designers: Tom Cairns/ AnthonyMcDonald
Lighting: David Cunningham Stage Direction: Tim Albery, DVD Direction: Barrie Gavin, BBC / RM Arts Co-production 1988.
Recording details are not given.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 2787 (1 disc) [155 minutes]

 

So far as I know, this is the only available DVD version of 'Billy Budd'. The performance is in the revised two-act version for television that Britten made in 1961, and the disc comes with a booklet containing a detailed listing of the opera’s numbers in English together with a plot synopsis and commentary in German, English and French. The disc also includes a short introduction by Michael Berkeley, which promises but fails to deliver an interval talk with Eric Crozier, one of the works librettists. The interview is not on the disc.

The libretto, written jointly by Crozier and the novelist E M Forster, is based on the Herman Melville story ‘Billy Budd, Foretopman.’ It recounts how in 1797, Billy Budd, a virtuous young seaman with a stammer, is pressed into Royal Navy service on the HMS Indomitable from a merchant ship called the ‘Rights o’ Man.’ Billy is maliciously harried by the ‘Indomitable’s’ Master-at-Arms John Claggart, and after being falsely accused of mutiny he strikes Claggart dead in front of witnesses and is hanged. According to the booklet, the text is both Christian metaphor and a parable of implied homosexuality.

Tim Albery’s production creates a vivid picture of the fear of mutiny prevailing at the time of the drama and of its violent suppression. Though the commentary mentions Billy as a Christ-like figure, Captain Vere as a ‘Pontius Pilate’ who sanctions Billy’s execution and Claggart as ‘the incarnation of evil who sings a parodied version of a text from St. John’s gospel to reveal his malice,’ all of these elements are treated carefully. Only two direct allusions to them are noticeable: the ‘holy-stones’ that the sailors use to scour the ship’s decking and call ‘Bibles’, are shown literally as books in the first scene, and Captain Vere appears in modern dress in both prologue and epilogue; a symbol of timeless guilt caused by the lawful but unreasoning destruction of an innocent.

When the opera was first written in 1951, male homosexuality was illegal in England and references to it, even within works of art, needed to be veiled and unexplicit. The libretto is therefore carefully crafted so that its frequent references to Billy’s ‘handsomeness’ and to his ‘beauty’ could have been defended (if required) as simple examples of commonplace descriptive usage at the time the drama is set. Charles Dibdin’s famous song ‘Tom Bowling’ (written about his married elder brother in 1789) says for instance :

Here, a sheer hulk lies poor Tom Bowling, the darling of our crew;
No more he'll hear the tempest howling, for death has broach'd him to.
His form was of the manliest beauty, his heart was kind and soft;
Faithful below, he did his duty, and now he's gone aloft.

Although both law and public opinion had changed for the better by 1988, Albury’s production continues to handle the homophilia issue tactfully. The booklet’s claims that ‘Billy’s appearance clearly triggers sexual fantasies in both Vere’s and Claggart’s minds, and (that) the latter…..wants to destroy Billy because he desires him’ are by no means obvious. Unlike Covent Garden’s production in September 2000 (Review) there is little behaviour shown by Claggart or Vere to suggest any physical attraction to Billy and all action between them can be read otherwise if we choose: as the oppression of dissent by a fearful authority mindful of recent mutinies.


The music is done very well. This is a fine version of one of Britten’s masterpieces with excellent singing from everyone involved. Assured conducting from David Atherton overcomes the musical problems caused by an all-male cast and both Langridge as Captain Vere and van Allen as Claggart give of their best. When the production was first broadcast there was some criticism that Thomas Allen was too old to play the fresh-faced Billy but his singing is more than adequate compensation for those who find his appearance unsatisfactory. Of the other cast members, John Connell as Dansker is on particularly good form but there are no poor performances at all. Recommended.

Comparative Audio Recording: Billy Budd, Philip Langridge; Simon Keenlyside; John Tomlinson; Clive Bailey; Mark Padmore; Richard Coxon London Symphony Chorus Tiffin Boys’ Choir London Symphony Orchestra / Richard Hickox.
Chandos CHAN9826 (3 discs)


Bill Kenny

Terry Barfoot has also watched this DVD

Britten was always at his best when he created around the central theme of his preoccupation with persecution and the corruption and loss of innocence. In Billy Budd, which vies with Peter Grimes for the accolade of being his greatest opera, he uses a story by Herman Melville as his source. The handsome and simply virtuous sailor Billy Budd suffers from a stutter that prevents him from replying when he is deliberately and falsely accused of mutiny by the Iago-like master-at-arms John Claggart. In his frustration he strikes out and kills his accuser. Captain Vere recognizes Buddís innocence but is weak in his acquiescence. The operaís hero is therefore hanged, but his death is somehow represented as a symbol of redemption.

The story, then, is strong stuff, and it is successfully transferred to the stage through E.M. Forsterís immensely skilful libretto adaptation. When the project was in the process of creation, Britten visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth Harbour in order to gain an understanding of the atmosphere and daily life on board an 18th century warship. This he succeeded brilliantly in capturing in his music, and this aspect of the opera provides both a challenge and an opportunity to its interpreters.

It is a challenge that is largely by-passed by Tim Alberyís 1988 production for English National Opera. That this does not matter so much is a tribute to its other qualities, as well as to the standards of the musical performances, and pf course to the level of dramatic intensity and characterization Britten and Forster achieved.

For Albery opts to create a dark, sinister society within the below-decks confines of the ship, with the emphasis very much on the characters rather than the atmosphere of time and place. It is a valid enough view, though it is also a missed opportunity, particularly when preserved in a DVD recording.

The pacing of the music and the drama marks this work as one of the great operas on the century. David Atherton conducts with a masterly command of ensemble and pacing, supported by a cast who are committed to the cause. Thomas Allen was associated with Billy Budd for many years, and this production was the last time he performed the role. He looks and sounds the part, as does Richard Van Allan in his portrayal of the evil master-at-arms, John Claggart.

With Pucciniís Scarpia and Verdiís Iago, Brittenís Claggart is one of the grest villianís of the operatic stage, a character for whom the destruction of innocence is a prime concern. This process allows Britten the opportunity to create some of his most compelling and moving music, with the result that with each acquaintance the sensitive listener will find the work more rewarding still.

Given that this is a live performance, the standards are remarkable, not only of the conducting, singing and orchestral playing, but also of the balancing of the vivid recorded sound. Visually it not the most exciting of experiences, but that is part of the producerís approach.

In many respects the evil Claggart is the star of the show. He certainly controls the ship with an iron discipline, relying on cruelty and deception at every stage. With its close attention to the more private scenes in the drama, the production emphasises this the more strongly. Van Allan is on excellent form, not only vocally but also dramatically, not least because he contrasts with Thomas Allenís innocent, enthusiastic Budd.

Philip Langridge is excellent too in the role of the hapless Captain Vere, a decent man who is caught amid circumstances that he does not have the strength of will to control. His final solos are heartrending in their combination of vocal tone and response to the text. There are many important supporting roles, all of which are well cast and well sung by the members of a company at the top of its collective form. And the excellent chorus is full toned and disciplined in every respect.

The version performed is Brittenís later revision in two acts, which was the version he preferred. The accompanying documentation is adequate (unusual for a DVD), with a useful introductory essay and synopsis by Volkmar Fischer but no biographical information about the artists.

Terry Barfoot


 



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