When you look at all the operatic roles that Britten created for his lifelong partner in life and music (something in every opera except Noye), the first thing that becomes clear is how well he understood Peter Pears' voice and musical talents. The vocal lines fit the voice perfectly, utilising all its strengths and usually avoiding its weaknesses. When you look at the characters he asked Pears to play, however, a rather different picture emerges. As a performer, Pears comes across as rather refined, sophisticated, something of an aesthete, a bit of an intellectual. So, while he makes a good fist of Peter Grimes, it is Grimes the dreamer that tends to stay in the memory: the tough, violent, naïve fisherman is more Jon Vickers territory. The innocent Albert Herring, the impetuous Essex and the impassioned Lysander (though Flute was his original part) really don't work very well as characters with Pears. And, while no-one sings the trance-inducing melismas of Quint quite like him, do we really believe he is the incarnation of corrupting evil? The Male Chorus in Lucretia fares better because he is just an observer with little personality of his own. And Pears' roles in the Church Parables are sufficiently distanced by the Brechtian/Noh ritual of the pieces to allow him to view these characters more objectively.
The two parts that work best for Pears are Aschenbach, the composer's final gift to his lover, and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Certainly Vere is something of an intellectual and an aesthete: he is a reader of Plutarch, a man somewhat out of touch with the rough sentiments of his subordinate officers, prone to using classical references they don't understand. And he is, like Aschenbach, highly susceptible to the Apollonian appeal of Billy's handsomeness, goodness and beauty (Claggart's words). One suspects that, like Aschenbach again, there is also a more Dionysian aspect to this attraction. Certainly the redemption Vere attributes to Billy's death on that clear, blue morning in enemy waters is not quite as clear and blue and cloudless as he would like to imagine.
Captain Vere is one of the most complex of all Britten's characters (at least before Aschenbach). That is, of course, thanks to the subtlety of E.M.Forster's libretto and of Britten's music. But it is also thanks to the force of Pears interpretation. I am inclined to think that this is his best performance in any of the operas on disc. He successfully adumbrates all the different sides of the role - the humanist and the military stickler, the charismatic leader of men and a man torn by internal moral dilemmas and indecisions, an outsider by nature of his rank and his own inclinations who is placed in the closest-knit of male communities. That the part is magnificently sung by Pears goes almost without saying. That he makes the character so fascinating, so complex and so real in the agony of the choices he faces is down to Pears' superlative vocal acting. In this performance it is Vere rather than Billy who is the hero, the focus of the whole opera.
Which is not to take away from what is a great team performance of this important opera. Britten never seemed able to cast Billy from the ranks of the Aldeburgh coterie - Theodor Uppman, the Billy at the premiere, was an American import; Peter Glossop on this recording, a North Country Verdi specialist. He sings the part well enough, is touching in Billy in the Darbies, but can be a little unimaginative. Claggart is in the hands of the underrated and under-recorded Michael Langdon (a great Ochs in his time), as black of voice and soul as any Wagnerian villain. The quarter-deck officers are a fine set of Britten regulars: the lower-decks boast some fine newcomers to those ranks in the likes of Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon as the Novice and his Friend. The chorus are magnificent, whether in the drudgery of daily chores, the relaxation of shanty-singing or the excitement of battle. Britten, as you would expect, conducts his own music with a naturalness and a perception that allows detail to make its points without ever losing sight of the overall structure (all to do with two fiercely opposed key-centres, set out in the Prologue and only finding their eventual resolution in the Epilogue).
The two fill-ups on Disc 1 add to the value of the set if not seeming strictly relevant to the opera they accompany - the Metamorphoses for Oboe would have done that better. Nevertheless the Donne Sonnets from the end of the War and the Blake Songs and Proverbs from the 60's get definitive performances from Pears and Fischer-Dieskau respectively, both with the composer at the piano.