The British prefer Britten operas not to be overly exciting, and even the composer's classic Decca recording of Billy Budd is much less dynamic than the premiere performance from 1951, which can still be heard in serviceable pirated mono (VAI). Kent Nagaon changed all that with this riveting live performance from 1997 with the Halle Orchestra, playing as if their lives depended on it. The full oppression and buried anger of the sailors is caught from the very first and builds with tremendous force to the moment when they witness, through frightening wordless agony, the hanging of Billy Budd.
Nagano conducts the original 4-act version, but his tempos are vigorous enough to capture the whole opera on 2 CDs (other recordings, even of the revised 2-act version, take three). Abetted by sonics that are super-charged with vitality, Nagaono papers over the stretches of less-than-compelling music that crop up, and he uses ever-shifting orchestral color to enliven the potential monotony of an all-male opera.
Of the leads, Rolfe-Johnson stands out for his haunted, emotionallly driven Vere, the best reading in dramatic terms since Pears premiered the role. Hampson doesn't sound as young as Simon Keenlyside on the Hickox set, or as charmistmatic and innocent as Thomas Uppmann at the premiere, but he is a great interpreter of this role, once you accept that he often sounds more like Thomas Hampson than a gang-pressed British sailor. Halfverson sings a dark Claggart with plenty of ocnviction, but there is wobble in his voice, and it clouds his diciton. The minor roles are sung very well; the chorus is the best on ecords.
Altogether, this is a riveting musical experience, and it should convert many American listeners to one of the masterpieces of opera in English, a work fully the equal and in some ways the superior to Peter Grimes, which is much better known in this country.