Britten: Billy Budd (original version)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: VAI VAIA
WORKS: Billy Budd (original version)
PERFORMER: Theodor Uppman, Peter Pears, Frederick Dalberg, Hervey Alan, Geraint Evans, Michael Langdon, Bryan Drake; ROH Chorus & Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
CATALOGUE NO: 1034-3 ADD mono (1951)
There’s something special about being able to experience a long-distant world premiere of a now familiar opera through the ears of that initial audience. Officially released in the UK for the first time, VAI’s 1993 resuscitation of the only known tape of the 1951 premiere of Billy Budd certainly provides that sense of a historic document. As an off-the-air recording, one has to put up with radio interference, tape wow and a few missing fragments, but the Covent Garden performance comes across with theatrical vividness.

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Peter Pears is the only singer who survived in his role, as Captain Vere, to the composer’s studio recording for 16 years later, by which time his voice lacked the warm tone it still had here. Only Michael Langdon – promoted from First Lieutenant at the premiere to become the archetypal, black-voiced Claggart – and Bryan Drake – here Donald, later Mr Flint – joined him in 1967. The original Claggart, Frederick Dalberg, brings his own dark-hued vocal characterisation.

But perhaps the most valuable aspect of the VAI release is in preserving the original Billy, Theodor Uppman. Britten made a special point of securing an American for the role (presumably British baritones of the time weren’t hunky enough), though Geraint Evans (here Mr Flint) was an early candidate. Budd’s youthful innocence is marvellously captured in Uppman’s lyrical creation, no more so than in the heart-rending ‘Billy in the Darbies’ scene.

This, of course, is the four-act version, subsequently condensed into two acts by the time of Britten’s studio recording. The excellent Erato account from Kent Nagano, with Thomas Hampson in the title role (reviewed March 1998), has since shown that the original has its points of interest, but the revision still feels tighter dramatically.

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That version coincidentally appears on another new release, preserving the belated Venetian premiere in June 2000. But given that this is in direct competition with Britten’s own Decca recording and Richard Hickox’s perhaps even tauter and more resonant 1999 account (Chandos, reviewed July 2000), it fights a losing battle. The lead singers – Mark Oswald as Billy, Keith Lewis as Vere, Monte Pederson as Claggart – simply lack the class and vocal allure of Glossop/Pears/Langdon (Decca) or Keenlyside/Langridge/Tomlinson (Chandos) and Isaac Karabtchevsky’s musical direction is too relentlessly percussive. The sound is obviously far superior to the VAI, even if too much emphasis is given to the orchestra over the voices. Matthew Rye