DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Billy Budd (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)


New look and feel makes Britten’s darkest even more so.

Published on February 22, 2012

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Billy Budd (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)

Performers: London Philharmonic Orchestra/The Glyndebourne Chorus/ Mark Elder (cond.)/ Michael Grandage (dir.)/ Christopher Oram (designer)
Principal Cast: Captain Vere – John Mark Ainsley/Claggart – Philip Ens/ Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo /ensemble
Studio: Opus Arte OA 1051D (two-disc set)[Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080i HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English/French/German/Spanish
Extras: Introducing Billy Budd, Designs on Billy Budd, cast gallery
Length: 180 minutes + 20 minutes (extras)
Rating: ****

Analyzing the theme and intent behind Herman Melville’s 1891 novella, Billy Budd: Foretopman, could be – has been – a whole lengthy topic unto itself. The story is a fairly simply one. Billy Budd is a young man pressed into service, along with many others, aboard the HMS Indomitable during the waning days of England’s naval conflict with France during Napoleonic conquest.  The Indomitable’s Captain Vere is written – and herein portrayed – as traditional and stoic but, ultimately, weak. The master-at-arms, Claggart, has the thankless job of keeping the large crew of men, of varying will and ability, on task and away from thoughts of mutiny. (In both the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, as well as in historical reality, the British navy had already suffered two mutinies.)

These three principal characters play out in a developing tragedy. Billy is portrayed as young, physically quite capable and handsome. Claggart is older, jaded and cynical; easily made jealous by the attention that he perceives the refined but distant Vere gives Billy. When Billy, in a crucial scene early on, shouts out “Farewell ‘Rights-of-Man’”, the very deliberate double-entendre penned by Melville is, indeed, taken as a rebellious remark by Billy instead of some joyous exclamation by Billy over leaving his former assigned ship; the “Rights of Man”, Claggart becomes at first suspicious and, then, determined to frame Billy as a mutinous malcontent. Through bribery, dishonesty and spite, Claggart does create a situation in which Billy is accused of mutiny. Billy is so outraged and afraid of these charges that – in the darkest moment of this story – he lashes out at Claggart and accidentally kills him. The ship’s senior officers meet and decide that Billy violated two articles of war, either of which is punishable by death. Vere is called upon to use his position to make the critical judgment call and, potentially, save Billy’s life. He, instead, cannot and defers to the decision of his associates. Billy is hung to death and the opera concludes with Vere reminiscing about his years of service, of which he is proud, but which will also be haunted forever by the lost opportunity to save an innocent.

The performances in this production are excellent and, to an extent, idiomatic. A notable exception, to me, is the portrayal of Billy Budd by baritone Jacques Imbrailo. Imbrailo’s portrayal and Michael Grandage’s direction, gives this Billy a bit more naivety and innocence and a little less of the physical bravura that some previous performances have offered. John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere is the appropriate blend of refinement and a near royalty with undertones of insecurity. Phillip Ens’ Claggart is practically a scene stealer. His tone of voice and even his facial expression exudes a petty jealousy and sadism towards all his charges; the new “captain’s pet” Billy in particular.

This is, for many, including me, Britten’s darkest work; with a stereotypical soaring, “British” sounding score but a tragic storyline that builds almost from the beginning with little to no reconciliation even in Vere’s closing soliloquy. Much has been written about Melville’s original symbolism being possibly of Christian analogy – Billy as a Christ-like figure, Claggart as Judas and Vere as Pilate. Another thread that comes up in theory with the Britten opera is an underlying repressed homosexuality. Are both Claggart and Vere attracted to Billy for his looks and virility in an all male environment?  (Britten himself being openly gay at a time and place where this was not that accepted) Ultimately, the success of this opera – and certainly of this production – hinges not on any implied symbolism but simply on the strength of its tone and performances. This production clearly does succeed.

The forces of the LPO and the Glyndebourne Chorus perform magnificently under the strong leadership of Englishman Sir Mark Elder. Special mention must be made of the production design by Christopher Oram. Not once in this production do we see the ocean or even anything clearly “topside”.  Most of this Billy Budd is seen below decks wherein there is the ribbed, skeletal, woody, dank appearance of the frigate. One can almost feel the claustrophobic atmosphere and feel for men who would clearly rather be elsewhere.

Again, the three main principles are wonderful. Ainsley, Ens and Imbrailo are great and Imbrailo, especially, gives an almost naïve performance. Billy Budd remains one of the great operas of the twentieth century but one that is also not performed all that often for reasons of tone, production costs but also the very atypical and tension-filled aura of the all male ensemble. I imagine anyone enjoying Britten’s music, the very fine performances in this production and the excellent Blu-ray transfer. If you already know and admire Billy Budd, this is a different, darker view and one well worth seeing for yourself.

—Daniel Coombs




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