Billy Budd

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Composer: Benjamin Britten

Libretto: E.M. Forster & Eric Crozier

Based on the novella by Herman Melville

First Produced: Royal Opera House Covent Garden 1951

Present Company: Glyndebourne, 2010

Director: Michael Grandage

Designer: Christopher Gramm

Lighting: Paule Constable

Sound Engineer: Xavier Fontaine

Video Director: François Roussillon

London Philharmonic Orchestra

The Glyndebourne Chorus

Conductor: Mark Elder



Captain Vere: John Mark Ainsley

Billy Budd: Jacques Imbrailo

Claggart: Phillip Ens

Redburn: Iain Paterson

Flint: Matthew Rose

Lt. Ratcliffe: Darren Jeffery

Red Whiskers: Alasdair Elliott

Donald: John Moore

Dansker: Jeremy White

Novice: Ben Johnson



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 39.75 GB

Bit Rate: High (26~32 Mbps)

English DTS HD-MA 5.1

English LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, German, French & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 172 minutes

Opus Arte 2011



Conception & Staging: A

Costumes: A

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A-

Image: A

Audio: A

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: A



I have often wondered if native speakers of other languages feel about heir own language sung in opera anything like the way I do about mine: Not all that happy.  For my money there are only two composers whose settings of English text to concert music feels right to me.  One of these is Benjamin Britten, whose Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is one of the best examples, and the other is George Frideric Handel who came to English as a second or third language and whose chosen texts were archaic even in his day.  It surprises me that I should find things thus since I am such a devotee of the American musical theatre (pre-Sir Andrew, I might add).  I think I know why this might be and perhaps I’ll come back to the question someday. 


Back to Britten. He was 32 when his opera Peter Grimes was first staged in 1945 and pretty much changed the face of opera in English, placing Britten squarely on the Who’s Who of important composers of the day.  Billy Budd was his next dramatic opera.  The story is based on the Herman Melville novella, with a libretto by novelist E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier with an assist from the composer and Peter Pears, his lifelong partner and the man for whom the role of Captain Vere was written.  The opera first appeared as a four-act piece in 1951 and was substantially reworked into two acts in 1960, this being the version that is performed today.



In Peter Grimes the subject is the relationship between the individual and society and how an oppressive society leads to a cruel and violent individual. In Billy Budd the situation is the same, but different: dramatizing how the angels of God haven’t a chance against the forces of darkness once they find accomplices even in enlightened, well-intended people. It is about how we become victims of suspicion and doubt despite our best hopes for our species. 

Billy is an impressed new seaman aboard the late eighteenth century man o’ war HMS Indominable.  He is an Innocent with scarcely the remotest thought that any other person could have malevolent intentions, as does Claggart, the ship’s Master-at-Arms. Billy has a stammer that at times stops him dead in his tracks.  (Melville, inadvertently perhaps, makes a strong case here for the benefit of verbal expression as a pre-emption against violence.)  But Billy does his work joyfully and competently and is loved by his shipmates - making him a target for Claggart who can’t abide someone so unlike himself and one that by such contrast, makes him out, even to himself, the malignancy that he is.


Claggart’s usual means of exercising power over others, along with its accompanying humiliation, doesn’t work with Billy, who utter lack of self-consciousness makes him invulnerable to attempts to making him out to be a fool, let alone setting him up for the ultimate fall. The ship’s commander, Captain Vere, thinks too well of the Royal Navy, but even if he detests Claggart, he, too, is victim: to his adherence to a doctrine of Duty before Reason - or Truth, for that matter, and to the fact that there had been recently two occasions of mutiny aboard other English ships.  Such a good man is he that he cannot grasp the intent behind Claggart’s malevolent scheming to set up Billy as the instigator of a non-existent mutiny, for which crime the ultimate penalty must be exacted.


To return briefly to the question of word setting, in all of Britten - and to an extent, Handel - the melody of the voice and texture of his writing for the instruments supports the meaning of the text.  To take one example of thousands from the opera, observe at about 1 hr, 46 min after the captain instructs Billy to meet him in his cabin how he sets the expression “tangled by the mist”.  His writing for Redburn and Flint resembles the weave of a rope - reminding us of how the story began and predicting how it will end.


The opera is not merely about the trap that Claggart sets for Billy, nor the duel between Good and Evil that Melville’s original novella focused on, but the effect all this has on the good captain and, of course, the crew, who are all the more dehumanized by the experience, not least because it is they who must carry out the sentence. And while immediate events fall out rather differently from the expectations of Billy, Vere and Claggart, Melville the fatalist sees to it that the outcome is the same.  Britten and his librettists see to it that it’s even worse.




Michael Grandage, in his first go at directing an opera (and Glyndebourne’s first production of this one), together with his designer Christopher Oram, conceives and executes a brilliant solution to the challenge of a shipboard play. Taking advantage of Gyndebourne’s natural horseshoe shape they extend the concept right onto the stage, such that the audience feels they are on board the ship, at times well below decks, along with the players.  Paule (pronounced “Paulie”) Constable’s lighting is naturalistic and surreal by turns, claustrophobic, exuberant and menacing.  The quarter deck is poised above the sailors reinforcing an impression of arbitrary authority.




As with Britten’s Turn of the Screw three years later, Billy Budd begins with a solitary figure, in both cases a tenor reflecting on events long passed that continue to trouble his him.  And, as with the later opera, this same tenor re-appears later in the opera – there as a different character altogether; here as the younger Captain Vere.  His inner turmoil is painfully realized by John Mark Ainsley, as it would continue to be right through to the end of the piece.  Master-at-Arms John Claggart is a difficult role: the vocal range is great as is the shading required to bring off his character as anything more interesting than a sadistic pig.  Bass Phillip Ens’ ripe bass is properly at odds with his character’s sadism, but the direction lacks the homophobic element we might expect from the text.


Billy Budd is designed for a baritone who can manage a higher tessitura than usually the case for that voice.  In fact, I had mistaken 31-year old South African Jacques Imbrailo for a tenor, something along the lines of Placido Domingo, though without his power or beauty of tone. Imbrailo has an unusual face, pliable (check out Billy’s changing moods in the screencaps below), able to convey charm, charisma, confusion and rage in equal measure.  I liked his singing, too.  I tend to agree with Andrew Clark, writing in the Financial Times, who pronounced “the finest Billy I have heard – lusty, virile, sensitive and moving.”

The chorus, small, yet powerful and lusty is superb.  Smaller roles are all managed successfully and with character.  That’s actually an understatement, for rarely have I found such consistency across such a large number of supporting roles.  Britten is very much at his best much of the time, especially in the second act, Mark Elder makes for a commanding chef d’orchestre, bringing darkness to light, so to speak.  The London Philharmonic Orchestra is superb here as accompanist and tone painter.



Video & Audio

The opera opens from a fade from black to lonely lighting on the aged Captain Vere, who looks back at events that have haunted him for many years. The black is pitch, without a hint of noise that would otherwise have blighted our clear impression of light and dark, right and wrong, and Vere’s self-isolating imprisonment that will resonate later with Billy’s solitary confinement.  In only one scene does the darkness get crushed without detail and a few moments where the scene is too bright for a short time, but everywhere else this is a superb effort: jaw-droppingly sharp most of the time, well-resolved, artifact-free, with Opus Arte’s customarily excellent color contrast, which is all the more important in a staging and costuming that tends to almost monochromatic grays.


The audience remains completely unobtrusive throughout the opera, save at the end of each act, but I can’t say the same for François Roussillon’s video direction which, up to the first orchestral interlude in the second act, has been sensible, even telling.  And then, just when you felt completely safe he falls into that familiar trap of cutting to the orchestra just before Billy’s examination by the captain.  It’s not only the move away from the stage that is distressing but the intense light on those bloody music stands that drives nails into our retinae.  Passing all understanding, Roussillon does not cut away from the world’s longest fade to black at the second interlude after the court pronounces sentence.  There is nothing to look at for ages ages but a black screen, and the effect is mesmerizing.  So what happened to his sense of drama a short while earlier?  Boggles the mind!



This is a huge set, and the distance from the microphones varies considerably, yet none of this appreciably hinders the principals or chorus of sailors regardless of their location on the set.  I continue to be impressed by one Blu-ray live opera recording after another.  They may have their faults, after all the microphones have to so as not to get in the way of the audience line of sight, but lack of definition and a sense of actual people singing are not among them.


Unlike most every other opera, Billy Budd has no female voices (or characters for that matter).  The audio mix (both in 5.1 and stereo) does a fine job at defining the voices and to offer weight to the small chorus without making a bloody mess of them.  Part of this is due to Britten’s lucid writing – both for voice and orchestra, but the audio engineers could have screwed this up royally, but didn’t.  I especially like the choice in the surround mix not to place vestiges of the instruments to the left, right and rear of the audience.



There are two principal items, each about ten minutes, that consider the approach to the material by the director and the set design.  Conductor Mark Elder, John Mark Ainsley (Captain Vere), Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) and Phillip Ens (Claggart) all weigh in from their perspective as well.  It’s all over far too soon, and little is said about the music or the history of the opera.  This last is reserved for Peter Reed’s essay in Opus Arte’s multi-language booklet, which also includes a Synopsis of the opera.

Let me caution that this 2010 Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd is exceedingly intense, and it will leave you for something to think about and talk about for some while, encouraging a revisit from time to time..  For maximum effect I recommend strongly that you watch in one go with as many friends as will fit into your room, with only a short break between acts, just as if you were in attendance.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

June 5, 2012

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