Britten: Billy Bud

WORKS: Billy Bud
PERFORMER: Peter Pears, Michael Langdon, Peter Glossop, John Shirley-Quirk; Ambrosian Opera Chorus; London SO/Charles Mackerras; dir. Basil Coleman (TV, 1966)
CATALOGUE NO: 074 3256
The first of the groundbreaking television productions of Britten’s operas, Billy Budd was staged by Basil Coleman, who had produced both the opera’s premieres at the Royal Opera House – that of the original four-Act version, and of the revised two-Act version performed here. Using the BBC’s two-studio technique, he created massive, painstakingly authentic settings on a 1770s man-o’-war. With 1960s monochrome and flat lighting, it’s hardly Master and Commander, but its fluency and shifting viewpoints are still striking today, far in advance of stage telecasts, and the coherent atmosphere undoubtedly enhances the drama onscreen. Charles Mackerras maintains both the score’s gusty energy and claustrophobic tension, with an equally intense cast. Peter Pears inhabits rather than acts Captain Vere, the anguished scholar-warrior to the life. Grimly sonorous, Michael Langdon (himself an ex-petty officer) makes Claggart appear Vere’s dark mirror, brutish but keenly self-aware. Peter Glossop’s rather mature but jovially natural Billy remains the finest voice I know in this role. Officers and crew are equally impressive, from John Shirley-Quirk’s Redburn to the youthful Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon as Novice and Friend. Michael Scott Rohan