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Britten: Billy Budd

Jacques Imbrailo, Toby Spence, Brindley Sherratt et al; Chorus & Orchestra of Teatro Real de Madrid/Ivor Bolton; dir. Deborah Warner (Bel Air Classiques, DVD)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Britten Billy Budd
Jacques Imbrailo, Toby Spence, Brindley Sherratt, Thomas Oliemans, David Soar, Torben Jürgens; Chorus & Orchestra of Teatro Real de Madrid/Ivor Bolton; dir. Deborah Warner (Madrid, 2017)
Bel Air Classiques  DVD: BAC154; Blu-ray: BAC554   174 mins

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In surely Britten’s greatest dramatic opera, we have here three superb singer-actors. Toby Spence is the nervy and well-meaning Captain Vere; Jacques Imbrailo the innocent sailor Billy Budd, tormented first by his stammer, then by his Christ-like fate; and Brindley Sherratt is memorably malevolent as Claggart. As a team, they almost outmatch the formidable trio in Tim Albery’s classic ENO production (available on Arthaus), Imbrailo’s anguished portrayal arguably displacing even Thomas Allen’s noble and stoic hero (though for ENO, Philip Langridge in the even more crucial role of Vere is in a class of his own). It helps that Deborah Warner in her production gives those characters scope to be more openly expressive: Claggart leers at Billy just before being struck dead by his tongue-tied victim; and as Billy is subsequently taken to the ante-chamber to await the court’s verdict, he lunges forward and clasps Vere around his chest as he makes his final desperate cry: ‘Save me!’

Though Herman Melville’s novel, on which the opera is based, is set in the Napoleonic Wars, Warner has the officers kitted in modern uniform, and there’s no sail in sight on stage designer Michael Levine’s not so much abstracted as deconstructed ship: a multitude of ropes hang from the fly loft down to the stage, itself punctuated by two trenches of water through which unfortunate sailors are made to run. Some of the added symbolism can seem over-elaborated and beside Melville’s – and the opera’s – point: Bibles not only double as holystones (as they did in Albery’s staging), but also an old sailor is seen distractingly rubbing the stage with one during Vere’s Prologue. Yet ultimately none of this gets in the way of the outstanding central performances in a production, superbly conducted by Ivor Bolton, which brought me close to tears.

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Daniel Jaffé