It’s good to see Glyndebourne’s staging, so striking last summer, translated so powerfully to video. Billy Budd has recently been set in a US aircraft carrier and a boys’ school; but producer Michael Grandage, in his first opera, more effectively returns to the 18th-century man-o’war. He shows us HMS Indomitable through Captain Vere’s tormented memories, as a sunless, claustrophobic world, its denizens flung together by the brutal demands of war. Christopher Oram’s cleverly stylised set, moodily lit by Paule Constable, reaches out to make the auditorium – and the viewer – part of the ship. Mark Elder’s conducting is equally involving, pacing the developing tragedy with airily lyrical detail and brooding, ominous power.
John Mark Ainsley’s plangent, dark-toned tenor and intense diction show us a more neurotic Vere than usual, ridden with doubts and anxieties behind the urbane front he presents to his officers, in his old age reliving the traumatic execution. Philip Ens’s Claggart maintains a chilly calm, sadistic philosopher rather than snarling bully; he stretches his suave basso cantante somewhat but radiates credible evil, his eyes glittering ambiguously as he first meets Billy. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo is also vocally light, but it suits his Billy, no plaster saint but gauche, hyperactive and open-hearted. Basses Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery and Matthew Rose, rich-voiced if gruff, make the officers burly tough nuts, habitually harsh but not inhumane.
The crew, though limited by stage size, are a superb ensemble with John Moore’s stroppy Donald and Jeremy White’s fatalistic Dansker outstanding; only Red Whiskers seems a touch underpowered. While the BBC video, featuring creator Peter Pears as Vere, has inescapable historic claims, this is the most compelling Billy Budd on video, and superb in Blu-ray. Mike Scott Rohan