Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd- Opera in Four Acts Op 50 (1951 version) [148:49]
Billy Budd - Thomas Hampson (baritone); Captain Vere - Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); John Claggart - Eric Halfvorson (bass); Mr Redburn - Russell Smythe (baritone); Mr Flint - Gidon Saks (baritone); Mr Ratcliffe - Simon Wilding (baritone); Red Whiskers - Martyn Hill (tenor); Donald - Christopher Maltman (baritone); Dansker - Richard van Allan (bass); Novice - Andrew Burden (tenor); Novice’s friend - William Dazeley (baritone); Squeak - Christopher Gillett (tenor); Bosun - Matthew Hargreaves (baritone); First Mate - Ashley Holland (baritone); Second Mate and Arthur Jones - Simon Thorpe (baritone); Maintop - Robert Johnston (tenor)
Cabin boy and midshipmen - boys from Manchester Boys Choir; Seamen - Gentlemen of the Hallé Choir and Northern Voices
Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. live, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 25-31 March 1997
synopsis included but no text or translations
ERATO 2564 67266-0 [77:02 + 71:47]
One of my most vivid memories is of sitting in the Camden Theatre in London in November 1960 for the first performance of the revised version of Billy Budd. I had read the (original) libretto in advance and was surprised at the omission of the big scene at the end of the original Act 1, although my main reaction at the time was sheer admiration for the opera as a whole. That admiration I have retained through performances and productions of all types, but I admit to never having actually heard the original version. I therefore approached this reissue in the Warner Opera Collection with considerable interest as a chance to get to know the composer’s changing thoughts on one of his masterpieces.
The main and most obvious change is the deletion of the scene in which Captain Vere gives the crew a rousing speech about their part in the war with the French. It is certainly important in providing a fuller context for Vere’s dilemma after Claggart’s death but it does not arise very naturally from what comes before, and Billy’s cry of “Starry Vere, God bless you” does sound somewhat over the top as a reaction to it. Britten and his librettists ingeniously retain this section in the revised version but it sounds much more natural there. There is also much to be said for the continuous music of the revision which avoids the need for three damaging intervals. What I had not realised is how many other changes there are in the revision. Few are large in themselves - for the most part only affecting a few notes or words - but the effect is to tighten up even more the vivid picture that the opera presents of an enclosed world, governed by strict rules and in which the feelings and perceptions of the individual must be subservient to that context.
This performance was recorded live at a concert in Manchester. The large all-male cast is generally well chosen, with all the secondary roles well filled and characterised. The three principal characters are more problematic. The best is Eric Halvarson’s splendidly dark sounding Claggart. Anthony Rolfe Johnson does not sound entirely at ease with the role at the start, but is excellent in the various dramatic encounters in Acts 3 and 4 and in the Epilogue. The one real disappointment is Thomas Hampson in the title role. He sounds oddly rough and disengaged with the part, lacking in individuality, quite unlike what I had expected from his other recordings. His cries of “Starry Vere, God bless you” lack conviction. The chorus sing accurately and lustily but without the dramatic projection that one expects from an operatic chorus. Kent Nagano finds the drama and colour in the score but overall makes it sound like the concert performance that it was rather than like a real operatic performance in which everyone concerned fully inhabits their roles.
This remains an important reissue for the light it casts on the genesis of the opera, and it is a valuable supplement to the best recordings of the revised version under, say, Hickox or the composer. Warner/Erato do not appear to have appreciated this point, and include only a synopsis of the opera in the booklet rather than the detailed essay on the revision which would have capitalised on the issue’s main selling point.
John Sheppard 

Important. Nagano finds the drama and colour but overall makes it sound like the concert performance that it was rather than like a real operatic performance in which everyone concerned fully inhabits their roles.