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CD: MDT AmazonUK AmazonUS

Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd [173:00]
Captain Vere – John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo (baritone)
Claggart – Phillip Ens (bass-baritone)
Mr Flint – Matthew Rose (bass)
Mr Redburn – Iain Paterson (baritone)
Donald – John Moore (baritone)
Novice – Ben Johnson (tenor)
Red Whiskers – Alasdair Elliott (tenor)
Dansker – Jeremy White (bass)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder
Michael Grandage (director)
rec. live, Glyndebourne, June 2010
Region Code: 0, Sound Formats: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1, Screen 16:9
OPUS ARTE OA1051D [86:00 + 87:00]

Experience Classicsonline

Glyndebourne’s 2010 production of Billy Budd was the company’s first and was an out and out triumph among the critics. Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph scrambled for superlatives when he said, “I was enthralled beyond my wildest hopes by this stupendous achievement, and scarcely know where to begin lavishing praise.” It now appears on DVD and, for those of us who couldn’t get a ticket, it confirms the production’s promise triumphantly.

For Budd Glyndebourne recruited Michael Grandage, Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse, who here directs his first opera. However, his touch is so sure that it feels as though he has been doing this for years. The first glory of the production is the set, a brilliant rib-cage of a ship’s interior designed by Christopher Oram, a regular collaborator of Grandage’s. The set feels hermetically sealed, reinforcing the claustrophobia of this world, but its real mark of genius is that its tiers re-create the tiers of the Glyndebourne auditorium so that the theatre’s galleries seem to continue on into the stage, making the audience feel every bit as much a part of the action as the singers on stage. Likewise, when Vere appears on the quarterdeck of the ship, he not only commands the Indomitable but the audience in the theatre as well. There are two short “extra” features, one of which deals with the design specifically and is extremely informative; the other is a more general introduction to the work and this production.

Grandage brings a theatre director’s touch to the acting of the characters, which here is every bit as important as the singing. Happily, both are outstanding. John Mark Ainsley’s Vere is deeply conflicted, not just in his words but in his gestures. He fidgets with unease in his cabin at the opening of the second scene of Act 1, and his body seems saturated with utter powerlessness during the court-martial scene. Yet his stage presence in the prologue and epilogue seems to go through a transformation: from the troubled, restless aristocrat of the opening he seems to take on a grander stature so that, by the time of the epilogue, he has faced up to his past and gained a new assurance in the words “he has saved me.” Interestingly, during the execution scene it is the older Vere who witnesses events on stage, reliving and reimagining the events that have haunted him ever since. Ainsley’s is not a conventionally beautiful voice, but he uses his bright timbre to great effect and his vocal acting is incredibly incisive so that he is never less than completely convincing.

The part of Billy is a triumph for Jacques Imbrailo. He enters into the character quite astonishingly, achieving marvellous identification with him, through body as well as voice. His boyish mannerisms encapsulate all of the Billy’s youthful innocence and nave charm and he makes him so endearing in the enthusiasm with which he gives himself wholeheartedly to every task. Imbrailo bounds around the stage with engaging energy, and his face (especially his eyes) embody all of the character’s charming vigour, as well as his sense of impending doom in his soliloquy. His voice is just as young and energetic, though not so boyish as to remove any sense of masculinity. The production rests on his shoulders and does so securely.

His nemesis, the black-voiced Claggart of Phillip Ens, is his antithesis in every way. Grandage dresses Claggart in dark colours from top to toe and Ens’ cavernous bass embodies Claggart’s malevolent darkness completely. He is deeply sinister and neither he nor Grandage shrink from the sexual undercurrent of the work, always bubbling dangerously just below the surface and threatening to engulf the Master-at-Arms. However, Ens also makes him a character to pity as well as to fear: his blighted vision of the world has cut him off from human society and we see him as hopeless and loveless in his “own dark world”. Ens never blusters, always maintaining an almost alluring silkiness to his voice – nowhere more so than in his meeting with Vere at the start of Act 2 – so that Claggart is never a caricature but always a person to be reckoned with.

The rest of the cast provide outstanding support. Glyndebourne is famous for the quality of its collective achievement, and they have assembled a crew of sailors in whom there is no weak link. Special mention goes to Iain Paterson’s Redburn, rich and fulsome of voice, and brilliantly acted. I loved the way he pronounced Claggart’s name, in the first act, with a mixture of contempt, admiration and terror, and the regret with which he carries out Billy’s sentence is palpable, not least in the snarl with which he pronounces the words “Gentlemen, the court rises”. Likewise, Matthew Rose’s Flint is rich and resonant, sharing many of Redburn’s regrets but equally determined to see out the task. Other standouts include the sympathetic Dansker of Jeremy White, the fantastic Novice of Ben Johnson and Alasdair Elliott’s Whiskers, who journeys from comic self-parody to wounded self-knowledge.

Again and again Grandage’s vision of the piece brings it to life brilliantly. The opening of Act 2, when the French ship is sighted, is tremendously exciting, and the full ensemble at Billy’s execution is terrifying in its grandeur, but he also pinpoints the human dramas with expertise, such as the lovely scene when Dansker visits the condemned Billy on his last night alive, or the characterisation of each sailor during the scene below decks at the end of Act 1, and the scene with the flogged Novice is very moving. Scene changes are subtle but very effective, evoking great differences with little touches, and the sets that glide in for Vere’s cabin or the sailors’ quarters seem to do so in union with the orchestra, evoking the majesty of Britten’s phenomenal score all the more powerfully.

The singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus is beyond praise, as is the top-notch playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Mark Elder reveals himself to be a dramatist every bit as gifted as Grandage, pacing the work with a keen sense of movement but not so hurried as to leave no room for contemplation. It really seems as though everybody involved in this project knew they were collaborating on something special and gave the very best of themselves to produce work of startlingly high quality.

There isn’t a lot of competition for Billy Budd on DVD, but even with the little there is this DVD immediately jumps to the top of the recommendable list. The only Billy that is more convincing is Hickox’s outstanding CD set on Chandos which contains vocal actors of the calibre of Keenlyside, Langridge and Tomlinson who are so convincing that you barely notice the lack of visuals, so vivid are the stage pictures evoked in your mind. That doesn’t take away from the stupendous triumph of this film, however. Anyone with an interest in Britten or in opera should rush to acquire it. For my money this is the best opera DVD of the year so far, and quite possibly the best in a considerably greater time period.

Simon Thompson






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