things first. This is a stunning and totally impressive
recording – in fact it is probably the best version of Billy
that I have heard, or seen – including the ‘original’ Pears/
Britten edition - recently re-released on DVD.
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
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.
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
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
. 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.
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.
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’.
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.
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
reasons for his bad attitudes and desire to ‘do for’ Billy.
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.
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.
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
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.
I have read a number of critics who suggest that Billy
will not be the favourite Britten opera of many
listeners. Their argument surely goes that Peter Grimes
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
and its spin off the Four Sea Interludes
see also review by Anne
Ozorio (October 2008 Recording
of the Month)