Britten: Billy Budd (original version)

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

WORKS: Billy Budd (original version)
PERFORMER: Bo Skovhus, Neil Shicoff, Eric Halfvarson, Robert Bork; Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
The claim to fame of this sixth CD account of Britten’s nautical opera lies in the fact that it records – in blunt but acceptable sound – the belated Viennese premiere of the opera in 2001. But beyond the crisp, alert conducting of Donald Runnicles, it proves a poor substitute for the best of the existing recordings. First of all there’s the problem of language: with the chorus and well over half the cast non-native English speakers, the pronunciation is occasionally a little quaint, to say the least (even from Neil Shicoff trying to suppress his American accent). And then there’s the casting. Apart from Bo Skovhus’s lithe, sympathetic Billy and Eric Halfvarson’s malign Claggart, there are few performances of note here. Shicoff, darling of the Viennese opera-going public, probably has to be seen in the role of Captain Vere to be fully appreciated – here his vocalisation often sounds strained and untidy. Like Kent Nagano (Erato) and Britten (the world premiere on VAI, reviewed last November), Runnicles adopts the four-act original version of the opera, with the Captain’s Muster scene that Peter Pears persuaded the composer to drop from the 1961 revision. If you want this version – and it is rapidly becoming the norm on the world’s stages – then Nagano’s reading is the one to go for. But for the strongest casting, Richard Hickox’s Chandos account of the revised version is unbeatable, even when compared to the composer’s own Decca studio account. Matthew Rye