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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd, opera in two acts, Op. 50 (1951; rev. 1960)
Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo; Captain Vere – Toby Spence; Claggart – Brindley Sherratt; Redburn – Thomas Oliemans; Flint – David Soar; Ratcliffe – Torben Jürgens; Dansker – Clive Bayley; Donald – Duncan Rock; Squeak – Francisco Vas; Novice – Sam Furness; Bosun – Esteve; First Mate – Gerardo Bullón; Second Mate – Tomeu Bibiloni; Novice’s Friend – Borja Quiza; Maintop – Jordi Casanova; Arthur Jones – Isaac Galan
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real, Madrid/Ivor Bolton
Stage direction: Deborah Warner; Stage design: Michael Levine; Costume design: Chloe Obolensky; Lighting design: Jean Kalman;
Chorus Master: Andrés Maspero
Sound format: 2.0 PCM & DTS 5.1 DTS Master Audio; Picture format: 1 BD50 Full HD 16:9
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese Booklet notes: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German.
rec. 2017, Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC554 Blu-ray [175 mins]

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, with libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier after the novel of the same name by Herman Melville, is undeniably a masterpiece of 20th century opera. Happily, I can report this is an excellent recording of it. Put simply, not only is there no perceptible weakness in any significant aspect, but strengths abound, from the singing by the principals and chorus to the conducting and playing by the orchestra, and on to the production that features stage director Deborah Warner’s quite effective and mostly straightforward take on the story.

One might quibble over one facet here and there, but I’m sure there’s nothing amiss, at least nothing of significance. Yes, the costuming is of modern-day or at least 20th century vintage, the higher ranked officers wearing stylish naval uniforms, the crewmen blue-collar, rather grimy work clothes. But updating aspects of the story to the modern era may be a way to suggest that the kind of injustice done to Billy in 1797 still occurs today. Of course, the stark contrast between the two groups in their attire can be seen as a depiction of the wide disparity in classes too, not just in the military but in society. The ship’s backdrop of ropes hanging down in a grill-like pattern surely symbolizes prison bars, and the generally dark lighting, typically leaving a darkish pall on the background, aids in creating an atmosphere of oppression befitting this tragic story. The ship’s design, with deck and quarterdeck and at least the illusion of much spaciousness across the stage, has more than a semblance of realism, though the Captain’s quarters are distinguished merely by a desk, chairs and, oddly, an oriental rug. Overall, the sets, lighting and costuming are quite effective then, quite fine actually.
The singing and dramatic skills of the cast are better than just “fine.” Jacques Imbrailo sings Billy with passion, delivering a stunning portrayal of his character, capturing perfectly the oxymoronic essence of his charismatic commonness, making you remember him as the hapless victim of horrible injustice and of cruel fate. Imbrailo’s mellow but virile baritone voice is quite attractive and his stage awareness, gestures and movements all fit Billy’s persona utterly. Toby Spence is no less impressive as Captain Vere: his tenor voice is most pleasing and his dramatic skills totally convincing, his character coming across as principled but indecisive, humane but duty-bound. His powerful epilogue—when he is long retired—shows him yet in uniform, and then at the very end, with a double joining him on stage as a defeated old man in civilian clothes, guilt-ridden in both guises. Claggart is the villain here you will love to hate: he is the Iago of this opera, and Brindley Sherratt is brilliant in the portrayal of him. He is subtle in his evil, his rich bass voice such a perfect match for his dark character. The rest of the cast is quite good and the chorus sings splendidly.

Not surprisingly, there is another star in this performance—conductor Ivor Bolton, who not only seems always to select the right tempo but to enliven the music as well with spirit so that no moment sounds pedestrian or inconsequential. He understands that Britten, like Prokofiev, a composer of almost entirely disparate artistic sensibilities, often put the orchestra on equal footing with the singers in his operas. That said, Bolton never allows the orchestra greater prominence than it deserves, in the end managing consistently to find a good balance in the sonic field. Speaking of the orchestra, its players turn in fine work throughout the performance, thus capping a most successful effort. By the way, the score for Billy Budd requires the largest orchestra of any Britten opera.

The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity on this Blu-ray disc are excellent. The album booklet features a short essay by Deborah Warner and a synopsis of the opera. There are no extras. The overall timing of 175:13 given in the heading includes over six minutes at the end for curtain calls and credits. This is my first exposure to this work on video and I am perfectly satisfied with it. You may want to refer to Roy Westbrook’s thoughtful review of this release for commentary on competing video recordings. Incidentally, in the credits and album booklet the surname of librettist and well known author E.M. Forster is misrepresented as FOSTER. In sum, this is a most compelling account of one of the great operas of the 20th century—you won’t be let down.
Robert Cummings
Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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