LISTSERV mailing list manager LISTSERV 16.0

Help for CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL Archives

CLASSICAL Archives


CLASSICAL@COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM


View:

Message:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Topic:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

By Author:

[

First

|

Previous

|

Next

|

Last

]

Font:

Proportional Font

LISTSERV Archives

LISTSERV Archives

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL Home

CLASSICAL  December 2009

CLASSICAL December 2009

Subject:

Britten's Billy Budd

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 9 Dec 2009 17:14:10 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (145 lines)

Benjamin Britten
Billy Budd, op. 50.

Ian Bostridge (Captain Vere);
Nathan Gunn (Billy Budd);
Gidon Saks (Claggart);
Neal Davies (Mr. Redburn);
Matthew Best (Dansker);
Gentlemen of the London symphony Chorus;
London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding.
Virgin Classics 5 19039 2  TT: 165:48.

Summary for the Busy Executive: Ghost ship.

Today, most writers regard Benjamin Britten as a pre-eminent opera
composer, and with good reason.  In an era where a composer may never
see a second performance (or even a first), his stage works, many of
them expensive to put on, get regular productions and, in many cases,
several recordings.  In that regard alone, Britten ranks with Puccini
and Strauss.  Impressive though I find Britten's achievement in the
theater, I tend to think of him as a brilliant all-rounder, like Mozart
-- with stirring examples in almost every genre except, oddly enough,
the classical symphony and the chamber sonata.

In the late Forties, Britten, fired up by an article by E.M. Forster
on Billy Budd, Sailor approached the novelist about a possible collaboration.
Forster, hesitant at first, came on board when he realized that he didn't
have to rhyme.  Britten also brought in his Albert Herring librettist,
Eric Crozier, to handle the parsing into arias and duets, and so on.
Forster and Crozier came up with a script, which Britten reviewed and
then directed changes on.  The Britten-Forster collaboration had its
snags, particularly when Forster, an admitted non-musician, innocently
passed on criticisms of the music, thus upsetting the sensitive composer.
Britten completed the opera in 1950 as a four-acter.  He never collaborated
with Forster again.  In 1960, he condensed the opera from four to two
acts, and the CD (and just about everyone else) presents the later
version.

Almost every one of Britten's operas concern an alienated figure --
estranged from society either by position (Gloriana, Turn of the Screw),
character (Peter Grimes), sexual orientation (Death in Venice), or ethics
(Owen Wingrave).  Often his operas show the social order as oppressive
and cruel (Albert Herring, Rape of Lucretia).  Midsummer Night's Dream
to a large extent constitutes an exception, although the fact that the
opera concentrates on the forest rather than Athens emphasizes the
separation of the characters from human society, as well as from each
other.  Billy Budd has most of these elements as well.  Billy, the angelic
foretopman, winds up getting hung for administering justice -- striking
down the lying, sadistic master-at-arms, John Claggart.  Claggart himself
cares for nobody -- not the men under him, not the officers above him,
not even his henchman and snitch, Squeak.  He probably hates himself as
well.  The sailors, many of them seized by press-gangs, are far from
home, subject to a life of servitude and flogging.  They share the bonds
of prisoners, rather than of friends.  Indeed, Billy's ability to make
friends wins over the most cynical of them, the crewman Dansker.  Even
Captain Vere, the head of the ship, has few, if any connections.  He's
an intellectual ("Starry" Vere, the men call him), highly ambivalent
about what he's doing and what he's compelled to do (execute Budd, for
one).  The codes of war and the draconian discipline adhered to by even
such an "enlightened" man are as murderous as Billy and not nearly as
innocent.

So ran the criticisms forty years ago.  Now that interest in sexual
orientation and especially in "queer studies" has risen, we see (or at
least talk about) more than we used to.  Most people today realize that
Forster and Britten's artistic compulsion to explore difference reflects
their perception of their precarious status as homosexuals in straight
society.  However, both heretofore had found metaphors in the general
"outsider" Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Stephen Wonham, and Dr.  Aziz,
for example.  Though still coded, Billy Budd represents the most open
expression of homosexual alienation for both artists up to that time.
Billy is called Beauty and Baby, and at least one sailor has a thing for
him.  In fact, Britten made compositional difficulties for himself.
Crozier, for example, kept pointing out that the entire cast was male,
and thus without the variety of treble voices.  For the most part, Britten
and Forster ignored him.  They finally included a cabin boy and a treble
chorus of powder-monkeys, perhaps just to stop his whining.  There's no
love duet, no conventional signpost for an operatic audience.

They also made several changes to Melville himself, some of them
significant.  The opera's Claggart, for example, is less enigmatic than
the original.  After all, his position as the major antagonist in a stage
drama somewhat obliges him to explain himself, and he does so very much
in terms of the self-loathing, closeted homosexual.  On the other hand,
Melville's Claggart never explains himself.  Like Moby Dick, his evil
remains mysterious and unmotivated, like a flood or an earthquake, where
the just suffer along with the unjust.  In Melville's story, Vere dies
shortly after Billy in a naval battle.  In the opera, he lives a long,
unhappy life -- long enough to suffer and to redeem himself through
suffering and understanding.  Oddly enough, Forster and Britten come
across as more old-fashioned than the nineteenth-century Melville.

The music has the brooding, stormy quality of Peter Grimes, perhaps
because both operas share the inspiration of the sea, but Billy Budd
seems more tightly-constructed than the earlier work.  Easily-identifiable
orchestral fragments comment on the action.  For example, the musical
refrain "O heave!  O heave away, heave!" on a sailor's chantey quickly
becomes a musical symbol for the oppressiveness of the crew's life.  It
comes back most tellingly at the very end, when the crew, on the brink
of mutiny over the death of Budd, disperse -- as the libretto states --
from "force of habit." Like Grimes as well, the opera has a few lighter
moments, like shafts of sunlight through black clouds, such as the
nonsense-rhymes of the sailors after the day's work, which I compare to
Grimes's "Old Joe has gone fishing." Furthermore, I find Budd more
dramatically pointed than Grimes.  Britten had learned something since,
adding to his natural dramatic skills.  The characterizations seem
sharper, less cartoonish, and more economical.  Vere's music is appropriately
quiet and reflective, Billy's soaring and a bit nayve.  Claggart's
characteristically lies low, tending in the vocal line to emphasize the
same pitch and thus underlining his purposeful obsession with destroying
Budd.

The opera contains little in the way of conventional aria (Billy's
soliloquy in chains is close to being an exception) but many brilliant
set-pieces, including Vere's listening to the crew's singing at night
and the battle-scene that opens the second act.  Throughout the opera,
Britten has mastered the clear exposition of several simultaneous planes
of action.  However, one also finds telling simplicity, especially in
some unearthly orchestral common chords as Vere goes off to tell Billy
the fatal judgment of the drum-head court.

This performance surpasses that of the composer himself on Decca. 
Britten was a fine conductor, but his Billy is curiously flat.  The
singers here are much better actors than in the Decca recording.  I'd
except Peter Pears.  The fact that he had passed his vocal prime I think
only added to the pathos of his portrayal of the sensitive Vere.  In
general, the cast indulges in very little "opera-singing." Instead, we
get singing speech.  Bostridge's Vere, though it misses Pears note of
maturity, has all the searching and flexibility of a Lieder singer.  You
can practically touch the malevolence of Gidon Saks's Claggart.  The
surprise for me was Matthew Best.  I know him as a conductor, but he's
an outstanding singer.  He plays Dansker, Billy's best friend, with
tragic depth.

Conductor Daniel Harding emerges as the hero of it all.  He has a firm
grasp on the overall shape of the drama, and again and again he builds
scenes and keeps things moving.  The sound is superb.

Steve Schwartz

             ***********************************************
The CLASSICAL mailing list is powered by L-Soft's renowned LISTSERV(R)
list management software together with L-Soft's HDMail High Deliverability
Mailer for reliable, lightning fast mail delivery.  For more information,
go to:  http://www.lsoft.com/LISTSERV-powered.html

Top of Message | Previous Page | Permalink

Advanced Options


Options

Log In

Log In

Get Password

Get Password


Search Archives

Search Archives


Subscribe or Unsubscribe

Subscribe or Unsubscribe


Archives

May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
February 2002
January 2002
December 2001
November 2001
October 2001
September 2001
August 2001
July 2001
June 2001
May 2001
April 2001
March 2001
January 2001
December 2000
November 2000
October 2000
September 2000
August 2000
July 2000
June 2000
May 2000
April 2000
March 2000
February 2000
January 2000
December 1999
November 1999
October 1999
September 1999
August 1999
July 1999
June 1999
May 1999
April 1999
March 1999
February 1999
January 1999
July 1997

ATOM RSS1 RSS2



COMMUNITY.LSOFT.COM

Secured by F-Secure Anti-Virus CataList Email List Search Powered by the LISTSERV Email List Manager