Billy Budd is the second of Britten’s large scale operas. Originally envisaged as a four act piece with prologue and epilogue it was later reorganised into two acts and that’s the version the BBC recorded and broadcast in 1966. That broadcast has now been released on DVD. Technically it shows it’s age. The picture is 4:3 black and white though there’s a remastered, and very decent, LPCM mono sound track. There’s also an enhanced Dolby mono track. The video too has been restored and looks pretty decent.
Tony Abbot’s designs are entirely conventional. We are on a 74 in 1797. Basil Coleman’s direction brings out the claustrophobia of the setting while focussing on Billy as a kind of Christ figure; the lighting often making him look like an icon of a saint complete with halo. The libretto, by E/M/ Forster and Eric Crozier after Melville, presents an entirely inaccurate picture of the navy in the late 18th century but thsat’s not the fault of the production which does though tend to reinforce the gratuitous cruelty of the book. Inaccurate or not, like Donizetti’s Tudor queens operas t is dramatically inense and compelling.
Performances are strong. Peter Glossop is just about perfect as Billy. In modern parlance he’s a barihunk; tall, good looking and with a clear, sweet toned voice. Perhaps the acting is a bit one dimensional but it fits the piece and by 1960s opera standards is not at all bad. Michael Langdon makes a fine Claggart. He communicates malevolence in every phrase and gesture and has a solid bass voice secure even in the lowest part of the range. Vere, of course, is sung by Peter Pears in, I think, one of his best roles. This is the image of a man torn between compassion and duty; the latter of course winning out. The Pilate like trial scene is most compelling. There are some fine performances in some of the smaller roles too, notably Dennis Wicks’ Dansker and John Shirley-Quirk’s Mr. Redburn. There’s been a lot written about how the there were serious problems coordinating the orchestra, chorus and stage action in this broadcast but it wasn’t obvious to me. I thought Charles Mackerras’ conducting was just fine and the LSO and the Ambrosia Opera Chorus sound more than adequate. The only extras on the disk are trailers and there are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.