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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd (1951)
Ian Bostridge (tenor) - Captain Vere; Nathan Gunn (tenor) – Billy Budd; Gidon Saks (bass) – John Claggart;  Neal Davies (bass) - Mr. Redburn; Jonathan Lemalu (bass) - Mr Flint, sailing master; Matthew Rose (baritone) - Mr Ratcliffe; Matthew Best (bass) – Dansker; Andrew Kennedy (tenor) – Novice; Gentlemen of the LSO Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. Barbican, London, December 2007. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5190392 [3 CDs: 23:00 + 63:01 + 79:41]
Experience Classicsonline

First things first. This is a stunning and totally impressive recording – in fact it is probably the best version of Billy Budd that I have heard, or seen – including the ‘original’ Pears/ Britten edition - recently re-released on DVD.
 
I guess that when I first heard that there was an opera called Billy Budd, which had its libretto based on Herman Melville’s book, I thought that it was going to be a sort of cross between H.M.S. Pinafore and Gregory Peck in Moby Dick. I did not realise that this opera is not precisely a ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure story but is actually a profound meditation on war, duty and homosexuality. A lot has been written about the typology and allegory of this opera. Much has been made of the social comment inherent in the text. But the bottom-line is that this is a great story, full of fine characterisation and having much action. Over and above this, there is a good deal of reflection, a balance of good and evil and even love. It is a tragedy only in the sense that Budd is executed. Love and goodness are seen in many parts of this opera and triumph in the final scene. 
 
I came to Billy Budd remarkably early in my musical career. In fact it was about the third ‘grand opera’ that I had heard. The first two were Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Hugh the Drover and The Poisoned Kiss. These were part of the 1972 centenary celebrations. A few months later I heard a Radio 3 broadcast of Welsh Opera’s Billy Budd. I was confused by it. After all I was only eighteen! What, with no obvious arias, no diva giving it all she had and an all-male cast: it seemed a bit strange.  But even then, there was something indefinable that appealed to me: something about the music that has stayed in my memory for many years. In spite of the fact that Errol Flynn was a million miles away, I have come to regard this as one of my favourites operas. Full stop.
 
The present recording is the edited version of 1960: originally it was written in four acts. The opera was revised by the composer for a BBC broadcast, the key change being a reduction to two acts and perhaps, more critically the appearance of Captain Vere is cut at the end of Act 1. I am in two minds about this ‘trimming’ – it seems a pity to miss some ‘Vere’ material, but the consensus of public opinion would appear to be that the revision is more effective, dramatically speaking.
 
Ian Bostridge gives a magisterial performance as the confused, but inherently decent Captain ‘Starry’ Vere. Surely if ever a man was the victim of circumstances, it is he. The epilogue of Act 2 is perhaps the finest part of the opera. Certainly it is the most significant – the Captain now an elderly man, reflects on the fact that ‘I could have saved him’. But did not. He concludes that Billy Budd has actually ‘saved me and blessed me’.
 
Naturally, Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd is a critical part of this opera, yet I have always felt that the action revolves round him and that perhaps it is not as significant a role as would be imagined. Probably sacrilegious to say this! However, I felt that I enjoyed Gunn’s performance least of all in this recording.
 
Gidon Saks for me steals the show. He gives a strong and deliberately aggressive performance of the Master-at-Arms. Yet just occasionally there is almost a questioning, reflective nature to his singing that belies the fact that he is a bully. Without being a bleeding-heart liberal, which I am not, it is possible to feel that even he has reasons for his bad attitudes and desire to ‘do for’ Billy.
 
There are many other great moments in this opera – for example the Novice who has been flogged in Act 1 played by Andrew Kennedy … also Andrew Tortise as Squeak. The male voices from the London Symphony Chorus lend their nautical charms to this recording – both in the raucous moments and in their more reflective ones.
 
There are too many highlights to point out individual triumphs – but for my money the scene in the Captain’s cabin, when Vere quotes classical literature and the aftermath of the flogging are superb. They are truly beautiful, totally memorable and quite simply moving.
 
I conclude with three observations. Firstly, I am normally a great believer in a strict hierarchy of operatic appreciation. Top of the list, is a live performance. Then, a DVD or televised performance and lastly an audio recording. Yet I am prepared to ignore my ‘invariable’ rule for this present CD. It is so well conceived and performed that with a minimum of imagination it is possible mentally to create the entire operatic scene. I listened to this recording twice – once in my front room and the other on the train. I was quite definitely aboard the ‘HMS Indomitable’ on my travels rather than one of Mr Branson’s Pendolino trains. The sheer brilliance of the performance by the cast and the London Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Daniel Harding is enough to make this an essential recording.
 
Secondly each hearing of this great work is a minor revelation. The thematic interrelationships that may be clearly apparent to the scholar with the full score, slowly begin to reveal themselves to lesser mortals. Additionally the orchestration on this recording is transparent. There is a chamber music feel to much of this performance that complements the intimacy of the singing. There is surely a danger that the some of the intimate moments of this opera could be destroyed by an unsympathetic and overbearing accompaniment. Harding maintains a perfect equilibrium.
 
Lastly, I have read a number of critics who suggest that Billy Budd will not be the favourite Britten opera of many listeners. Their argument surely goes that Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw are the masterpieces. I beg to differ. For Billy Budd has more poetic music, a greater and more powerful story, a more relevant grappling with the issues of the day – especially bearing in mind that homosexuality was illegal when this opera was composed. Finally the score has some of the finest and best music that Britten wrote. In fact some of the sea-inspired music seems to me to be even more impressive than that in Grimes and its spin off the Four Sea Interludes.
 
John France

see also review by Anne Ozorio
(October 2008 Recording of the Month)

 

 



 


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