How is it possible that only one DVD version of Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd has been released? Although it was available in North America from Naxos for at least some time, it is no longer. While it may be difficult to buy it on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, you can do what I did recently and rent it through Netflix, which acquired a copy when it was available. (Netflix has a fairly impressive collection of operas on DVD, which keeps growing as I feed them suggestions.) Billy Budd is one of my favorite operas (Britten being a particular fascination at Ionarts), certainly in the running, with Peter Grimes, for Britten's greatest opera. After Santa Fe Opera's brilliant staging of Grimes in 2005, we are glad to see that company finally getting around to staging Billy Budd this summer -- an ocean-faring opera staged in the middle of a desert! While the libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier is quintessentially English, it is based on a very American book, Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Foretopman.
Britten, Billy Budd, Philip Langridge, English National Opera (1988) (DVD release, 2001)
Francesca Zambello's 2004 production for Washington National Opera, reviewed by Ionarts in our infancy, remains one of the company's greatest achievements in recent seasons. That success was due in no small part to the conducting of Richard Hickox and the malevolent Claggart of old salt Samuel Ramey. In this 1988 production from English National Opera, tenor Philip Langridge is the main attraction, a handsome and dramatic stage presence with a clarion voice as Captain Vere. Langridge's recording with Simon Keenlyside, who later made quite an impression as Billy in this production at ENO (and whose recent solo CD is under review at the moment), is one of the better performances on CD. Comparison of Langridge with the creator of the role, Peter Pears, is almost inevitable, so let it suffice to say that the role fit Langridge like a glove.
Billy Budd, P. Langridge, S. Keenlyside, J. Tomlinson, London SO, R. Hickox
Richard Van Allan is a vampiric Claggart, tall and thin and costumed in black with swept back graying hair -- Claggart as Emperor Palpatine. Van Allan's thick, resonant voice sounds slightly worn and a little weary here and there. (Curiously, the sound seems not to line up with the singer's movements during O Beauty! O Handsomeness!, as if it were edited). Thomas Allen is a piercing Billy, perhaps too old and experienced for the role, especially in closeup, but vocally very effective. Tim Albery’s production is dark, spare, and pointedly effective, while conductor David Atherton puts together a worthy rendition of Britten's gorgeous score. Although well worth watching, it is not the best DVD of Billy Budd one could imagine, making the absence of competition all the stranger.
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