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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:

This concerns the original production with Peter Pears

Author: Dr Jacques COULARDEAU from Olliergues, France
15 November 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The re-mastering of the original BBC production of this opera by Benjamin Britten is a real treat with Peter Pears. The story, adapted from Melville by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier is a fascinating tale about the evilness of human justice on a ship under the Acts of War and other regulations having to do with court-martialing anyone for any misdemeanor in war time on a man-of-war. Falsely accused by his superior officer, the foundling and volunteer in the royal service against the French in 1797 Billy Budd is unable to defend himself with words because he is silenced by a fit of stuttering. So he hits the accuser and kills him. But that accuser is his superior officer, hence he deserves death for hitting his superior officer and committing murder. He has to be hanged twice but they will reduce it to once. The point is not that miscarriage of justice, but the all-male environment that creates tensions and stress. The said superior officer is "down on" Billy Budd, in other words attracted by him sexually, which he cannot accept and hence he decides to have him pay for that unmanly attraction of his. But Billy Budd is liked by everyone and the captain is himself attracted to that young and handsome foundling. This time we cannot say the attraction is sexual but the attraction is a deep emotion that makes the captain like Billy Budd and vice versa Billy Budd like the captain. In an all-male environment all kinds of distortions can occur in the relationships among the men in this closed environment that the ship is. But that's not what Benjamin Britten tries to show. He tries to show the dilemma in which the captain was when the events took place. He had to stick to what he had seen and avoid what he may have sensed or felt at the time. He then stuck to his testimony that meant two death penalties. But in his old age, that captain acknowledges the idea that he could have saved Billy Budd because he had the power to pardon the convicted man, and even before he could have testified about the loyalty of Billy Budd, hence the accidental and provoked assault on Billy Budd's superior officer. But he didn't and thus he is to be tried by another court, a divine court in which he believes. But the following episode is the main moment of that story. Just before being hanged and released to the deep sea, Billy Budd actually forgives the captain and that saves the captain's soul, but then he could have pardoned on the spot and he did not do it, and that does not save his soul. That's the story of a sea episode in which a captain endorses a miscarriage of justice just to keep his liking for the accused secret in an all-male environment. It is very similar to Peter Grimes, except that in Peter Grimes the young apprentices die due to accidents, and yet a retired captain tells Peter Grimes to go at sea and sink himself in his boat and he does it. Miscarriage of justice again. But it is an opera, so what is so musical in this story. The music and the singing are systematically dramatic and somber like hell. Instruments often run one against the others, creating conflictual points even at times hiatuses and that gives to the words and the images since it is a visual show a tremendous depth. But there are some moments when this depth becomes a tremendous elevation. Before his execution Billy Budd is visited by an older sailor who brings him a final drink and a biscuit. That scene is full of emotion and Billy Budd concludes his making his peace with the whole world and the injustice he is going to suffer with a final sentence that reads like that when sung: "That's all, all, all, and that's enough, that's enough, that's enough. This is a marvelous direct allusion to Solomon's trial or wisdom (due to the two repetitive triplets in the sentence) but it shows that the captain was the one who was confronted to a decision that could be compared to Solomon's decision: Billy Budd is guilty twice and he is going to die, but this time the captain did not react like the real mother did, accepting to lose her child for it to live, the captain did not accept to make public his liking for Billy Budd in order to enable him to live. And that's what is wrong with human justice: it is blind, deaf and mute: it does not see, does not hear and does not say the truth. The music that accompanies the gathering of all the men and the arrival of Billy Budd for his execution is a real gem and diamond in the whole opera with rolling drums from time to time, with whining horns and mocking flutes that create a fake environment to introduce a fake sham of justice that is a real execution nevertheless. And the forgiving declaration of Billy Budd after the reading of the sentence "Captain Vere, God Bless you" shines like a dawning sun in that visual scene of an execution you never see except through the eyes and movements of those who look at it.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:

As near to perfection as you can get

Author: Conspirator Slash from Ireland
25 November 2009

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Yes, there are some minor flaws. The set is too minimalistic, especially for the cabin scene. You can't get away without a huge desk, and they try. And Thomas Allen is not young enough, and was never pretty enough for the role, but when it comes to singing, he owns the role so that prettyboy Nathan Gunn should kneel before him and ask him "Teach me!"

But the true tragic hero is Vere, and Philip Langridge is simply perfect. (I could totally kick the costume designer for dressing him like a retired teacher in the prologue/epilogue, but in the flashback part he's really hot in his uniform.) His voice is exactly what you need for Britten, lyrical but with enough strength for the big dramatic outbursts and with a golden tone. And he looks the part - aristocratic, slim, elegant, he doesn't have to work for the "true leader" image, he has it by default. Plus he's hot - damn, he's still hot, even now at 70. He was around 48 in the film, and could easily look 40 as the character is. The real tragedy is his - he must execute Billy whom he know to be innocent in the eyes of God, but justice and law is not the same thing.

And we have a worthy opponent, the late Richard Van Allan, who possesses such a dark and cold aura, and such a black voice that you can immediately recognize he was born evil. He looks like a mix of Moff Tarkin and a younger Christopher Lee, pale and vampiric in all black. And he has a certain noble bearing - pride, strictness, and pure malevolence. This man rules through fear, not through force. Wish he had sing Hagen... but he never did.

And what makes the performance unique is the perfect supporting cast. Like in Grimes, you must have a dozen of good comprimarios; here you have them. Special hail for Redburn (the only one so far who seemed a true naval officer and not an opera singer), Squeak (so ratlike that Wormtail would be jealous), Dansker (good ol' sea-dog with a really warm voice) and Novice (beautiful lyric tenor and true anguish), but they're all wonderfully sung, and the chorus is tremendous too.

So highly recommended.

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:

A fine, greater than the sum outing for Britten's all-male opus

Author: Framescourer from London, UK
28 January 2006

Terrific staging by Tim Alberry. Thomas Allen is getting on a bit for the bouncy Billy (one imagines that Billy's of an age where his body is too big for him) but sings and acts beautifully. Key to the opera though is the character playing Vere and Langridge is totally in command, vocally and dramatically. With the addition of Richard van Allen as the Iagoesque Claggart the production is not only blessed with fine singing but also movie-grade acting. The chorus can only rise to the occasion.

The staging is relies on a quirky, split level arrangement and good stage movement from all which is duly delivered. The camera is not afraid to get right in on characters, giving the simplicity of the design and the video is stronger for it. 6/10

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I loved it!

Author: TheLittleSongbird from United Kingdom
6 June 2012

Britten's music has grown on me a lot over-time, and Bill Budd is one of his finest operas alongside Peter Grimes and Albert Herring. I can understand some of the complaints I've read and heard about this ENO production, but I still loved this performance of Billy Budd and was very moved by it. True, there were times when the production values were a little too minimalistic, but overall I did like how austere and understated the production was. The costumes are effective, and while there is occasionally the stand-there-and-sing approach such as with the line of boys the staging did convince me. Musically, it is just superb. The orchestral playing has the bite and fire it should, yet there is enough sensitivity as well for the epilogue, and David Atherton's conducting is detailed and musical. The chorus pay attention to musicality and balance, their Blow Her Away underwhelms just a tad but still well sung. All the supporting players are well cast, proving to be good cast actors well as singers. The three leads are superb. Thomas Allen being too old age for Billy Budd was one of the two main complaints I came across, the other being the sets, and while he may be he more than makes up for it by poignant acting and his rich voice, to me that is what opera is all about. The late Richard Van Allan is a genuinely black-hearted Claggart, but I found Phillip Langridge's Vere to be the most remarkable performance. He perfectly conveys pain, confusion and anguish and has a clear and powerful if not always beautiful voice, leading to an outstanding rendition of the epilogue. In conclusion, I loved this production of Billy Budd though I can see why some mayn't be as enthused. 9/10 Bethany Cox

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