It is good to have a DVD of Billy Budd, perhaps Britten's greatest opera, but this ENO production, that should have had everything going for it - experienced Billy Budd cast, good conductor and director - simply misfires. Perfectly OK to get to know the opera, but for anyone who has seen a production that wrings the soul(such as the recent WNO (Welsh National Opera)/Australian Opera Company production conducted by Richard Hickox) this offering seems insipid, and does not convey the real power this opera has.
The fundamental problem seems to be one of body-language. With the close-up shots in this DVD, too many of the cast seem to be concentrating on the singing rather than the character (and this shows in the characterization of the voices), and their body-language fails to convey the emotions. This is reflected in the conducting by David Atherton - perfectly servicable, but without any of the bite and fire that Britten himself, or Hickox, to name but two, have brought to this score.
The actual procution itself reflects this rather bland impression. The Napoleonic period costumes (and one can hardly avoid them) are reduced to bare, simple essentials, as if half-formed, and though there are visual moments that have considerable impact, these are few and far between. Perhaps the whole thing is summarized by the midshipmen: a line of boy singers sanding side by side to one side of the stage - no colour, no vibrancy, no particular involvement with the action.
So if you see this, yes, you will get some concept of the opera, but no real idea how powerful it can be. If Covent Garden ever revive their famous production, where the entire ship was on stage, cut away so all the decks can be seen - and film it with a cast of this calibre really working with an electric conductor - then that would be the DVD to cherish. In the meantime, WNO, where are you? Their procution would have made a great DVD.