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.
My failure to get to know the story of Billy Budd and to learn Britten's opera of the story until well into middle age are things I regret. I knew of the story because of the opera and recall that we studied it at school when I was 12 but at the time my mind was elsewhere and I did not take in any of the story or the background.
I think it worthwhile just learning the background to the story. It is set in the late 18th century during the Napoleonic wars and concerns the fate of Billy Budd, a sailor pressed into service onto the HMS Indomitable. Unlike other impressed men, he is able bodied and skilled at sailing and appears to love his work. He is beset by two flaws, first, at times of stress he develops a stammer and cannot express himself verbally and second he has an overly trusting good nature. On board ship he incites the jealousy of Claggart, the master at arms, who bullies weaker sailors with threats of flogging and is instrumental in Budd's downfall.
This historical background is fascinating. Budd's previous ship was called The Rights of Man and he sings in praise of this ship on his first day as a sailor, which some of the officers find disturbing. The Rights of Man is the name of a pamphlet by Thomas Paine which sets out the complete illogicality of the concept of monarchy and supports the French Revolution that saw the execution of the French king. For anyone in authority in England, such notions would be very dangerous, especially now that England was at war with France. Furthermore, the ship would have been crewed by people pressed into service, who had not willingly chosen to be sailors at all, facing extremely low pay paid long in arrears, bad food and brutal treatment. The officers on board are very conscious of recent mutinies at Spithead and Nore so will be very concerned about any sailor who may support any of Paine's revolutionary ideas.
So much for the background, what about the opera? I regret that I have taken so long to get to know the opera. I love some of Britten's operas, especially Peter Grimes but I am less keen on some of Britten's more chamber-scale operas, finding them lacking in dramatic thrust. This is very much at the Peter Grimes scale of Verdian passion and scale and I would suggest that it is an even finer work. Like in Peter Grimes, the sea is an ever present character and also there is wonderful use of sea shanty in the musical material.
There are now about three other recordings of the work on CD. This has the attraction of being conducted by the composer with a huge cast of famous British singers. Peter Glossop as Billy Budd is perfect as Billy Budd with a lovely, almost heldentenor timbre. Michael Langdon plays a wonderfully nasty Claggart with a great inky Wagnerian voice. The ship is presided over by Captain Vere, sung by Peter Pears, a beautiful portrayal of a saintly philosopher captain who is extremely conflicted by the decisions he has to make regarding Billy Budd's fate. All the minor parts are brilliantly taken most notably for me, by Robert Tear as the novice and Owen Brannigan as Dansker, who more that any other character understands the terrible tragedy of Billy Budd.
I really enjoyed listening to this opera and would recommend it very highly.
on 21 January 2016
I have nothing to add to the favourable reviews. But I would encourage you to watch the 1966 BBC video available to watch for free online on YouTube. Wonderful production and to see it staged aids understanding. All the cast are well suited to their roles. Pears displays none of the vibrato that spoiled, for me, some of his performances.
The strained economic situation of the classical music industry is working in many ways to our advantage as consumers. Britten's settings of Blake and Donne would never have been issued bundled together with Billy Budd in the vinyl era I'm quite sure. These days if we don't think one follows on from the other we don't have to get out of our armchair to select them as we please, and the composer's accounts of his own songs in partnership with Pears and Fischer-Dieskau would surely be a welcome supplement to more or less any classical cd release.
However I imagine the public for this set will consist mostly of enthusiasts for Britten's great masterpiece Billy Budd. This is music-drama, not opera, and the theme of the drama has a certain ambiguity of a kind that Britten was drawn to, as in the unresolved questions left at the end of The Turn of the Screw. The story is adapted by E M Forster and Eric Crozier from Melville. Melville's inspiration in turn was sparked off by the reportage on a court of enquiry into the execution of an ordinary seaman for mutiny. The captain who had so ordered had been advised that the evidence against the seaman was thin. Perceiving nonetheless a need to encourage the others by executing someone, the captain prevailed on the trial officers to take a more forward-leaning view. This they duly did, the captain explained to the man about to be hanged that this was all for the greater glory of the flag, whereupon the man blessed captain and flag.
The story of Billy Budd quite obviously had powerful resonance for Forster and Britten. It is a chamber drama basically, for all the background of war at sea between Britain and revolutionary France. There are three main actors - Billy himself, the captain, and the master-at-arms John Claggart. The action, on the face of it, seems small-scale. Claggart conceives a vicious spite against the innocent but adept and personable Billy, strong enough, it seems, for him to try to frame Billy on the capital charge of mutiny. The captain in this case recognises Claggart for the lying ratbag that he is, but goes through the formality of having Billy face his accuser. Rendered inarticulate by his stutter, Billy (whose loyalty to the captain would grace any dog) lashes out with his fist and his one punch kills Claggart. The captain knows the true score perfectly well, but hides behind formal processes again, in the full knowledge that he is thereby condemning an innocent man to death. However just listen to the music accompanying Claggart's first entrance - it would be very overblown just for some spiteful nonentity. Claggart, though unpopular and clearly unpleasant, is not a psychopath, but his hatred of Billy is unprovoked and his scheming is without any motive of personal advantage in an ordinary sense. What it all seems to amount to for Forster and Britten is firstly a parable of some cosmic evil aroused by innocence - the insignificant Claggart is given an Iago-like monologue of enormous and generalised portentousness as well as that sinister introduction from the orchestra. The drama then advances to a near-Faustian level in which the captain seems to stand outside himself and see eternal forces at work, with himself as a pawn in their strategy rather than just a human buck-passer of an all-too-familiar type. It all ends with Billy blessing the captain like the seaman in the original report, and there is an epilogue in which the captain, near the end of his life, reflects on the salvation this blessing brought him.
It must be the easiest, or at least the quickest, transition to salvation in all serious drama. A few hours and that was all done and dusted. I can't really imagine that many spectators or listeners will identify with a theme like this, but there is no mistaking the strength of the response it evokes from Britten. Add Forster to that, and maybe to some extent Melville himself, and it is time to suspend scepticism and realise that we are being given a glimpse of a very special, even elite, vision of how deity, or fate or whatever, operates. Most of us probably do not see things this way, but most of us are not Forster or Britten or Melville. As for authenticity in performance, that is self-defined here.
The foregoing is one man's interpretation of what this strange and elusive drama might be saying. We can be sure of one thing at least - whatever it all really signifies we are hearing it here. The cast are excellent - this work is a team job, not an opera with star solos, although Billy's final song (in rhyming verse and as truly an aria as anything by Britten's beloved Verdi) is done to what seems to me to be perfection by Peter Glossop. The LSO and the Ambrosian Singers do not let anyone down either, and the 1968 recording still sounds well. Such is the composer's sheer technical skill that it was only after the work had finished that I realised that this whole music-drama contains not one note for a female voice. You may understand the work differently, but you will be hard put to it to experience the power of it more than I have done, whatever it all may mean or imply.
on 6 December 2009
I have had this recording, on vinyl, for over 35 years. Needless to say it is not in the best of condition and, while I haven't scrapped it, I have added other versions to my collection. So far, however, this is still my favorite interpretation, though, as the opera gains in international recognition and as recordings multiply, I must admit there are some I have not yet heard.
The two reviews already posted here I find very well informed, well presented and insightful. It was a pleasure to read them. I can add little to what they say, but perhaps one tragedy has been overlooked: that of the Master at Arms, John Claggart. Of course he is the villain, a bully, a despot, a tyrant, in all a nasty piece of work; I don't want to excuse him, but his Iago-like monologue shows his hatred of himself just as it shows his hatred/envy/twisted feelings for Billy. This is presumably because of his suppresed homosexual desire for him, but perhaps envy for a happy good looking popular guy, something Claggart can never be. His choice to destory Billy is unforgiveable, and he pays the price, while Billy suffers through no fault of his own. What made Claggart so abusive?. Why is his successful career such a problem to him? Is his brutality (the novice) just his job? His is a sad story too. No excuses, but sad.
And does the music reflect that? The dark brass rumblings express the evil, but in the monologue? perhaps?
on 25 March 2013
My last review was of the delivery service, rather than the content. It doesn't matter, the star rating is the same. It's a magnificent opera, beautifully performed. Not the cheeriest music imaginable (the subject matter wouldn't work if it were an updated version of Pinafore), but is ultimately uplifting. I normally find Pears odd nasal voice grating, but it seems in keeping here, as he does vocally span Vere's life well.
This one gets overlooked next to Peter Grimes - but ideally both should be owned to really understand 20th Century British music.
on 8 July 2015
Britten's finest opera? Certainly up there, and this is a near definitive performance.