Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.