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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd (1951)
Ian Bostridge (tenor) - Captain Vere; Nathan Gunn (tenor) – Billy; Gidon Saks (bass) –Claggart; Neal Davies (bass) - Mr Redburn; Jonathan Lemalu (bass) - Mr Flint; 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 5 190392 [3 CDs: 23:00 + 63:01 + 79:41]
Experience Classicsonline

Few people would rate Billy Budd as their favourite Britten opera. Yet this recording could change things, establishing it as perhaps the most personally revealing of all Britten’s operas, and orchestrally one of the finest. This recording is a turning point. Often, performances have been assessed on the assumption that this is a conventional sailor story, but this is very different. Daniel Harding goes back to the score and rethinks it in an altogether new light. This is an essential version for anyone seriously interested in understanding Britten on a deeper level. It makes a compelling case for Billy Budd as symphony, an orchestral work that uses voices to extend its impact, not "opera" in the usual sense of singers acting out against a non-vocal backdrop.

Suddenly, Billy Budd is revealed as extremely sophisticated musical writing, where the real action is hidden in the orchestration, not what's happening with the actors. Captain Vere's dilemma "is" the central and absolute drama of the entire piece. "My life's broken. It's not his trial, it's mine, mine. It is I whom the Devil awaits". This isn’t about life at sea, or even about Billy, but about difficult ethical choices. Even in Peter Grimes, Britten disguises his most intimate thoughts with plot devices like Ellen Orford and the mob of fisher-folk. On board this warship, all non-essentials are stripped bare. Billy Budd is as starkly potent as a Greek tragedy.

It’s significant that this opera was written during the McCarthy era with its hysterical witch-hunts. Britten was no fool. It is significant how much he makes of the political paranoia of 1797, for it is pertinent to the "danger" the ship and its crew are in. "The Rights o’ Man" is in fact the name of Billy’s last ship, but the officers are terrified of mutiny, of change in any form. The officers, Mr Flint and Mr Redburn sing "Don’t like the French … their hoppity skippety ways ... those those damned mounseurs". Britten sets the lines as primitive banter, for this the bigoted, ignorant mentality that lets Claggart types dominate. Captain Vere on the other hand, hears the men singing happily below decks and knows they don’t pose any threat.

Given the background, it’s hardly surprising that the composer was emotionally reticent. He knew it could be dangerous to be too open, unsafe to be candid. Thus the significance of Billy‘s stammer. When he could save himself by explaining clearly, Billy collapses into incoherence. Similarly, Captain Vere pulls back from the brink when he could have intervened, another link between himself and Billy, both unable to express the unspeakable in words, like Britten himself

Therefore, Harding’s emphasis on the orchestra is thus psychologically as well as musically astute. The orchestra speaks what Vere and Billy can’t. Here the ocean is 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 takes centre-stage, turbulent and intense. Huge crescendos build up like mighty waves, but even more impressive is the undertow of dark, murmuring sound that surges ever forwards. Above this, currents flow 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 focused too hard, but that is 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 feel the wind and see the open horizon. This is 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. He’s such a free spirit that even death cannot extinguish him. That’s why, perhaps, 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."
It's not for nothing that Britten starts the opera with Vere reflecting on the past and ends with him being liberated, at last understanding what Billy meant.

Because this performance focuses on the moral dilemma that is at the heart of the opera, it renders irrelevant traditional assumptions about characterisation. Captain Vere isn’t supposed to be a brutish salty dog. Britten’s writing for the part is in an altogether more rarefied stratosphere from the other parts. Right from the beginning, Britten has him quoting classical literature: he is an educated, sensitive intellectual who understands things beyond the immediate present. He "is" Britten, not one of the masses. The men don’t call their Captain "Starry Vere" for nothing. He has his head in the clouds, among the stars, just as Billy is happiest at the top of the mast, above the decks. Yet that’s exactly why the men love him and respect him so much. He represents another way of being that alternative to the gung-ho butchness of the other officers who automatically assume the worst of the men and are taken in by Claggart’s dishonesty. Bostridge’s Vere is therefore much closer to the true "Britten" persona than portrayals that assume a Captain must be a naval John Wayne. The men trust him to lead them in battle because they know he has higher interests at heart.

The men love Billy, too, because he’s inherently good and idealistic: Claggart takes an instant hatred to him because he’s a complete reversal of the bullying, lying, venality Claggart has built his life around. At first, I found Nathan Gunn’s voice too light after Thomas Allen, for example. Yet, as the significance of this profound reassessment of the opera became clear, Gunn’s interpretation made complete sense. Billy isn’t a hero in the usual sense, he’s the spirit of freedom and purity the Claggarts of this world can never understand. Thus he doesn’t fear death. He cannot be conquered. Claggart dies after a single blow, but Billy defeats Death itself. The song, "Through the port comes moonshine astray" is transcendently beautiful, for Billy is focused on something infinitely greater than mortality, just as Vere is focused on the stars.

Gunn reveals Billy as yet another of Britten’s innocents whom Fate must corrupt. This is a theme so central to Britten’s whole view of the world. In Billy Budd he comes closer than usual in confronting his own experiences and actions. So ponder the final scene where Captain Vere looks back on his past and his role in Billy’s death. Why has it tortured him for so many years even though he knew at the time Billy had forgiven him? Perhaps Vere at last realises that the innocent cannot survive untouched in this world, and that, ultimately, it wasn’t Vere’s "fault" for not saving him when he could. Perhaps Vere has come to understand that what Billy stands for will never, truly be sullied whatever happens. Vere gets deliverance by intuiting how Billy has "blessed him, saved him" with "the love that passes understanding". Billy’s love of life and what’s beyond life has come to Vere at last. Peter Grimes never reaches this moment of lucidity, operating mainly on an instinctive physical level. Captain Vere exists on an altogether more rarefied, sophisticated and spiritual plain. Grimes simply commits suicide: what Vere endures is altogether more complex. Britten, through Vere, is contemplating much more fundamental things, the very nature of good and evil and our responsibilities in the scheme of things. No wonder the "sailor story" approach to Billy Budd has held sway so long! It’s far easier to assume Vere and Billy are simply "roles" that tell the story on the surface. But that’s not what’s in the score, nor in the libretto.

This is an important recording. It has enhanced how I feel about Britten, even though I know his work fairly well. It’s changed the whole way I listen to Billy Budd and placed it, for me, among the greatest of the composer’s works. It was a privilege to be present when the recording was made: see review

Anne Ozorio


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