Britten: Billy Budd / Elder, Ainsley, Ens, Paterson, Imbrailo [Blu-ray]

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Elsewhere in this issue I review—and excoriate—a Regietheater butchery of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites . Here we have its polar opposite, an absolutely stupendous performance in which— mirabile dictu! —the production team dedicates itself to a scrupulously accurate and imaginatively vivid realization of the creators’ intentions. This is the first opera production by well-known British stage director Michael Grandage, who works here with an established team of collaborators: stage designer Christopher Oram (who has the deepest bass speaking voice I’ve ever heard; I have a basso profundo , and he makes me sound like a baritone!), lighting designer Paule Constable, and movement director Tom Roden. The results are nothing short of spectacular, and they deserve as much commendation as the singers for a brilliantly executed production.

Normally the interviews that accompany many opera DVDs are insubstantial fluff, but not here. In two excellent supplementary features, Introducing Billy Budd and Designs on Billy Budd , Grandage, Oram, and Constable articulate their conceptions with exceptional grace, and it is worth quoting them at some length.

Grandage: “From a director’s point of view, the starting point of any piece of work is trying to get back inside the creator’s head and what they imagined. I think that’s one of the most exciting jobs of an interpretive artist. … And so it’s always been of interest to me to use their starting point as my starting point. … I’m not the kind of director who enjoys immediately looking at a time and place set by the writer and then going ‘Let’s not do that.’ It gives me more pleasure to try and interpret something that was clear for them, when they first set about writing it, and trying to bring that clarity to a new production.”

Oram: “At the end of the day, the idea is to communicate ideas and to serve one person, which is the writer. I want to do him justice by presenting his works in the best way possible.”

Constable: “I’m just telling the same story the opera is telling. … I don’t want them [the audience] to notice the lighting. I just want them to be part of something that tells the story as well as it can.”

What is truly striking about all this is not just the clarity, concision, and intelligence with which this common viewpoint is stated, but rather the humility it expresses. In contrast to the pernicious egotism of Regietheater , wherein the director poses as a Nietzschean Übermensch who proclaims to the benighted hoi polloi his annihilation of all moral laws and social conventions, it offers the concept of service to the original artistic creator, rather than subjugation of him. At the end of the day, Regietheater is utterly futile because it is absolutely barren, its hopelessly self-referential gestures comprising a pseudo-intellectual onanism. By contrast, the traditional period productions the Regietheater practitioner scorns are those which, by virtue of fidelity to original time and place, paradoxically achieve temporal transcendence and become universal in their connotations. Consequently, they are infinitely more creative—and thus truly artistic—than the sterile and puerile gimmickry of directors whose pretensions to “originality” consist of spewing forth hackneyed clichés of contemporary pop cultural phenomena and political artifacts du jour.

In this particular case, the production team constructed a stage setting consisting of the interior of an 18th-century frigate, with the deck lines following the architecture of the floor and balconies of the opera house so that the audience feels itself to actually be inside the ship and immediately participating in the action. For the scenes that take place in cabins or below deck, a cross-hatched framework is lowered over the stage that, in conjunction with deft alteration of the lighting (including a remarkably eerie blue twilight), creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that perfectly underlines and heightens the dramatic tension culminating in Billy’s doom. The costumes are in harmony with the set, and the acting by all concerned is natural and unaffected, with crowd scenes of the entire ship’s crew exceptionally well conceived and managed. The booklet notes remark that “Unlike Melville, Grandage doesn’t grandstand the homoeroticism”; that would seem to be a remark more pertinent to co-librettist E. M. Forster than Melville, but as far as the staging is concerned it is all to the good.

With one partial exception, the singing is on as high a plane as the staging. John Mark Ainsley has long been one of England’s most accomplished tenors, and here as Captain Vere he gives what may be the crowning performance of his career, inhabiting the role with vocal and physical nuance as well as complete security. Ideally, one might wish for the greater sweetness of tone he possessed in his youth, but the now slightly more strained timbre of his upper register serves here to accentuate the inner tensions of a fundamentally good man whose great flaw is an overly punctilious adherence to regulations that he allows to thwart his nobler impulses at a crucial moment. As Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo is the finest exponent of the role since Theodore Uppman in the world premiere; he not only has the requisite bright, rock-steady baritone with an open top, but also the looks, athleticism, and air of good-hearted, youthful innocence that no one between him and Uppman has fully accomplished on recordings. Interestingly, in his on-camera interview Imbrailo evinces a slight stammer—noticeably on words beginning with a hard “th” sound such as “the”—and one suspects that this provided him with a unique degree of insight into and empathy with the character of Billy that makes his personification so radiant.

The only serious, albeit limited, reservation I have concerns Phillip Ens as Claggart. Interpretively he is superb, the perfect embodiment of pure malevolence concealed behind the mask of duty; but too often, particularly in his middle range, his voice becomes unfocused and diffuse, with something of a wobble. However, the same thing is true of virtually every other bass who previously has recorded this part (Friedrich Dahlberg, Michael Langdon, Eric Halfvarson, and John Tomlinson immediately come to mind) and Ens is actually less flawed in this regard than most of them. It’s a crying shame that Robert Lloyd was never called upon to commit the part to disc; fortunately Matthew Rose, an excellent Mr. Flint here, has just recorded Claggart for a superlative new set on Virgin Classics with the all-star lineup of Ian Bostridge, Nathan Gunn, and conductor Daniel Harding, that now claims pride of place as the best-sung Billy Budd in any medium. As Dansker, Jeremy White also has a sometimes diffuse vocal emission, but the timbre itself is so warm and genial that one forgives the fault and enjoys the otherwise ideal characterization. All of the other secondary characters—Iain Paterson as Mr. Redburn, Matthew Rose as Mr. Flint, Darren Jeffery as Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Ben Johnson as the Novice, Colin Judson as Squeak, Alasdair Elliot as Red Whiskers—are uniformly excellent, with Rose and Johnson being particularly impressive. While Sir Mark Elder is not the most incisive conductor of the score on disc, he has sturdy musical sea legs and sure-footedly navigates all the maritime depths of the score—here, the revised two-act version. The recorded sound quality is stupendous, particularly the deep, thunderous, rolling bass that rumbles through the theater without the slightest hint of dryness or muddiness.

Of the three DVD versions of Billy Budd available, this is easily the one of choice. It is superior in both film quality and the singing of the lead roles to the historic 1966 telecast with Peter Pears, Peter Glossop, Michael Langdon, and Charles Mackerras, recently released on Decca and reviewed by Paul Ingram in Fanfare 32:2, while both are vastly preferable to the abstractly staged and dramatically inert English National Opera production under David Atherton on Kultur despite the latter’s starry vocal cast of Philip Langridge, Thomas Allen, and Richard van Allen. The only regret I have is that this came in sixth place in the competition for a slot on my 2011 Want List; it is fully equal in worth to the five finalists I chose instead, and I cannot urge you strongly enough to make this a part of your music library. It is an instant classic of opera on film, and while in the future it may be equaled, I do not see how it will ever be surpassed.

FANFARE: James A. Altena

Benjamin Britten
(Blu-ray Disc Version)
Captain Vere – John Mark Ainsley
Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo
Claggart – Phillip Ens
Mr. Redburn – Iain Paterson
Mr. Flint – Matthew Rose
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Darren Jeffery
Red Whiskers – Alasdair Elliott
Donald – John Moore
Dansker – Jeremy White
Novice – Ben Johnson
Squeak – Colin Judson
Bosun – Richard Mosley-Evans

The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mark Elder, conductor
Michael Grandage, stage director
- Introducing Billy Budd
- Designs on Billy Budd

Picture format: 1080i High Definition
Sound format: LPCM Stereo 2.0 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
Running time: 200 mins
No. of Discs: 1 (Blu-ray)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 28, 2011

  • Catalog Number: OA BD7086D

  • UPC: 809478070863

  • Label: Opus Arte

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Benjamin Britten

  • Conductor: Mark Elder

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra

  • Performer: Alasdair Elliott, Ben Johnson, Darren Jeffery, Iain Paterson, Jacques Imbrailo, Jeremy White, John Mark Ainsley, Matthew Rose, Phillip Ens


  1. Billy Budd, Op. 50

    Composer: Benjamin Britten

    Ensemble: Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra

    Performer: John Mark Ainsley (Tenor), Alasdair Elliott (Tenor), Phillip Ens (Bass), Jacques Imbrailo (Baritone), Darren Jeffery (Baritone), Ben Johnson (Tenor), Iain Paterson (Bass), Matthew Rose (Bass), Jeremy White (Bass)

    Conductor: Mark Elder