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.
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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
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
press-gangs, are far from home, subject to a life of servitude and
flogging. They share the bonds of prisoners, rather than of friends.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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)