BRITTEN: Billy Budd, op. 50.
Ian Bostridge (Captain Vere); Nathan Gunn (Billy Budd); Gidon Saks (Claggart); Neal Davies (Mr. Redburn); Matthew Best (Dansker); Gentlemen of the London symphony Chorus; London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding.
Virgin Classics 5 19039 2 (F) (DDD) TT: 165:48.

Ghost ship. Today, most writers regard Benjamin Britten as a pre-eminent opera composer, and with good reason. In an era where a composer may never see a second performance (or even a first), his stage works, many of them expensive to put on, get regular productions and, in many cases, several recordings. In that regard alone, Britten ranks with Puccini and Strauss. Impressive though I find Britten's achievement in the theater, I tend to think of him as a brilliant all-rounder, like Mozart -- with stirring examples in almost every genre except, oddly enough, the classical symphony and the chamber sonata.

In the late Forties, Britten, fired up by an article by E. M. Forster on Billy Budd, Sailor approached the novelist about a possible collaboration. Forster, hesitant at first, came on board when he realized that he didn't have to rhyme. Britten also brought in his Albert Herring librettist, Eric Crozier, to handle the parsing into arias and duets, and so on. Forster and Crozier came up with a script, which Britten reviewed and then directed changes on. The Britten-Forster collaboration had its snags, particularly when Forster, an admitted non-musician, innocently passed on criticisms of the music, thus upsetting the sensitive composer. Britten completed the opera in 1950 as a four-acter. He never collaborated with Forster again. In 1960, he condensed the opera from four to two acts, and the CD (and just about everyone else) presents the later version.

Almost every one of Britten's operas concern an alienated figure -- estranged from society either by position (Gloriana, Turn of the Screw), character (Peter Grimes), sexual orientation (Death in Venice), or ethics (Owen Wingrave). Often his operas show the social order as oppressive and cruel (Albert Herring, Rape of Lucretia). Midsummer Night's Dream to a large extent constitutes an exception, although the fact that the opera concentrates on the forest rather than Athens emphasizes the separation of the characters from human society, as well as from each other. Billy Budd has most of these elements as well. Billy, the angelic foretopman, winds up getting hung for administering justice -- striking down the lying, sadistic master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart himself cares for nobody -- not the men under him, not the officers above him, not even his henchman and snitch, Squeak. He probably hates himself as well. The sailors, many of them seized by press-gangs, are far from home, subject to a life of servitude and flogging. They share the bonds of prisoners, rather than of friends. Indeed, Billy's ability to make friends wins over the most cynical of them, the crewman Dansker. Even Captain Vere, the head of the ship, has few, if any connections. He's an intellectual ("Starry" Vere, the men call him), highly ambivalent about what he's doing and what he's compelled to do (execute Budd, for one). The codes of war and the draconian discipline adhered to by even such an "enlightened" man are as murderous as Billy and not nearly as innocent.

So ran the criticisms forty years ago. Now that interest in sexual orientation and especially in "queer studies" has risen, we see (or at least talk about) more than we used to. Most people today realize that Forster and Britten's artistic compulsion to explore difference reflects their perception of their precarious status as homosexuals in straight society. However, both heretofore had found metaphors in the general "outsider" -- Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Stephen Wonham, and Dr. Aziz, for example. Though still coded, Billy Budd represents the most open expression of homosexual alienation for both artists up to that time. Billy is called Beauty and Baby, and at least one sailor has a thing for him. In fact, Britten made compositional difficulties for himself. Crozier, for example, kept pointing out that the entire cast was male, and thus without the variety of treble voices. For the most part, Britten and Forster ignored him. They finally included a cabin boy and a treble chorus of powder-monkeys, perhaps just to stop his whining. There's no love duet, no conventional signpost for an operatic audience.

They also made several changes to Melville himself, some of them significant. The opera's Claggart, for example, is less enigmatic than the original. After all, his position as the major antagonist in a stage drama somewhat obliges him to explain himself, and he does so very much in terms of the self-loathing, closeted homosexual. On the other hand, Melville's Claggart never explains himself. Like Moby Dick, his evil remains mysterious and unmotivated, like a flood or an earthquake, where the just suffer along with the unjust. In Melville's story, Vere dies shortly after Billy in a naval battle. In the opera, he lives a long, unhappy life -- long enough to suffer and to redeem himself through suffering and understanding. Oddly enough, Forster and Britten come across as more old-fashioned than the nineteenth-century Melville.

The music has the brooding, stormy quality of Peter Grimes, perhaps because both operas share the inspiration of the sea, but Billy Budd seems more tightly-constructed than the earlier work. Easily-identifiable orchestral fragments comment on the action. For example, the musical refrain "O heave! O heave away, heave!" on a sailor's chantey quickly becomes a musical symbol for the oppressiveness of the crew's life. It comes back most tellingly at the very end, when the crew, on the brink of mutiny over the death of Budd, disperse -- as the libretto states -- from "force of habit." Like Grimes as well, the opera has a few lighter moments, like shafts of sunlight through black clouds, such as the nonsense-rhymes of the sailors after the day's work, which I compare to Grimes's "Old Joe has gone fishing." Furthermore, I find Budd more dramatically pointed than Grimes. Britten had learned something since, adding to his natural dramatic skills. The characterizations seem sharper, less cartoonish, and more economical. Vere's music is appropriately quiet and reflective, Billy's soaring and a bit naïve. Claggart's characteristically lies low, tending in the vocal line to emphasize the same pitch and thus underlining his purposeful obsession with destroying Budd.

The opera contains little in the way of conventional aria (Billy's soliloquy in chains is close to being an exception) but many brilliant set-pieces, including Vere's listening to the crew's singing at night and the battle-scene that opens the second act. Throughout the opera, Britten has mastered the clear exposition of several simultaneous planes of action. However, one also finds telling simplicity, especially in some unearthly orchestral common chords as Vere goes off to tell Billy the fatal judgment of the drum-head court.

This performance surpasses that of the composer himself on Decca. Britten was a fine conductor, but his Billy is curiously flat. The singers here are much better actors than in the Decca recording. I'd except Peter Pears. The fact that he had passed his vocal prime I think only added to the pathos of his portrayal of the sensitive Vere. In general, the cast indulges in very little "opera-singing." Instead, we get singing speech. Bostridge's Vere, though it misses Pears note of maturity, has all the searching and flexibility of a Lieder singer. You can practically touch the malevolence of Gidon Saks's Claggart. The surprise for me was Matthew Best. I know him as a conductor, but he's an outstanding singer. He plays Dansker, Billy's best friend, with tragic depth.

Conductor Daniel Harding emerges as the hero of it all. He has a firm grasp on the overall shape of the drama, and again and again he builds scenes and keeps things moving. The sound is superb.

S.G.S. (April 2009)