03 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten - BILLY BUDD (N. Gunn, I. Bostridge, G. Saks, N. Davies, A. Kennedy; Virgin)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976) – Billy Budd: N. Gunn (Billy Budd), I. Bostridge (Captain Edward Fairfax Vere), G. Saks (John Claggart), N. Davies (Mr. Redburn), J. Lemalu (Mr. Flint), M. Rose (Mr. Ratcliffe), A. Elliot (Red Whiskers), D. Teadt (Donald), M. Best (Dansker), A. Kennedy (Novice), R. Williams (Novice’s Friend); Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus, Members of the LSO St. Luke’s Youth Choir, London Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Harding [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in London’s Barbican Centre, 5 – 9 December 2007; Virgin Classics 50999 5 19039 2 3]

For an erstwhile admirer of the operas of Benjamin Britten, the release of a new recording of any of his operatic scores is noteworthy, whatever the provenance of the performance at hand. Despite being perhaps the most musically sophisticated but also approachable operatic works available to native speakers of English, productions of Britten’s operas outside of the U.K. are not plentiful, and current economic conditions are likely to further suppress even the noblest intentions to put on Britten’s operas. When faced with the decision of either producing a reliable audience-pleaser like La Bohème or Le Nozze di Figaro or taking a greater risk with Albert Herring or The Turn of the Screw, a cash-strapped opera company must be forgiven for choosing the score that is likely to fill the greater proportion of seats. Still, Britten’s operas enjoy the respect and the ostensible inclusion in the accepted universal operatic canon – though admittedly more by reputation than by actual experience – that their musical importance and psychological significance merit.

Among Britten’s operas, Billy Budd surely enjoys more productions than his brethren, especially in the United States. Perhaps one explanation for this preference is that the score is of a more conventionally operatic scale (which is to say, in a word, grand) than Britten’s other operas. It could also be argued, from the perspective of enterprising managements, that the prospect of a virile, handsome young baritone often singing his role in an abbreviated wardrobe is at least in theory capable of creating box-office success, even if the audience would really rather hear that young baritone sing ‘Contessa, perdono.’ By its construction, Billy Budd requires the sort of grandeur that is typically associated with opera, and its appealing story of betrayal and tragedy on the high seas has the tremendously impressive literary distinction of having been derived from the work of one great writer, Herman Melville, by another, E.M. Forster. This literary heritage bridges the gaps between America and Britain, in essence, and provides a work to which English-speaking audiences on both shores of the Atlantic can respond with equal comprehension and relevance.

The performance recorded by Virgin during concerts at London’s Barbican Centre during December 2007 capitalizes on this transatlantic cooperation by assembling a talented British cast around an American Billy, as Britten did on the opera’s first night by casting Theodor Uppman in the title role. Yet this is, in virtually every way, a very different Billy Budd than Britten presented in the opera’s first production and in his studio recording for DECCA (on which British baritone Peter Glossop sang Billy).

Conducted by Daniel Harding, the London Symphony Orchestra play magnificently throughout, producing tone that reveals many of the nuances of Britten’s composition and reminds the listener that this is, after all, the most opulently orchestrated of Britten’s operas. Orchestral felicities are plentiful, and individual instruments and combinations of instruments emerge wondrously from the broader soundscapes. Particularly impressive is the playing of the alto saxophone in the scene in which the Novice is led back onto the deck after having been flogged: the plaintive sound of the instrument, allied with the beautifully-shaped phrasing of its player, makes a tremendous impact, heightening the emotional immediacy of the scene. Overall, however, the playing of the orchestra seems curiously muted, though perhaps this ultimately is a result of the engineering, microphone placement, or mastering of the recording itself.

The choristers also turn in a fine performance, impressing with their accurate singing and firm lines in the sea shanties and sometimes dirge-like choruses. There is a lingering suspicion that these mariners are a less lively lot than the crew of the Flying Dutchman, however, and a persistent lack of animation damages not only the momentum of the score but also its cumulative impact. Billy Budd is, like all of Britten’s operas, essentially a community drama centered in the establishment, development, and disruption of personal relationships within the larger assembly. When the denizens of that community do not pulse with life and passion, even if subdued, the sharpest points of the drama are blunted. A Billy Budd that lacks a rambunctious crew of lusty sailors who howl their hatred of the French to the winds and growl their dissatisfaction manfully is like a Peter Grimes in which the townspeople are little more than an Episcopalian church choir: simply good singing when the emotional temperature remains low goes for nothing, and the crushing weight of the community that closes in on the principals, the most significant factor in the central drama inherent in any Britten opera, is lost. Whether one is willing to sacrifice an element of accuracy in the interest of drama, in this case a sort of desperation audible in the singing, is a matter of individual preference, but the overall trajectory of Billy Budd as music drama falls short of the target when, as in this performance, the choral singing fails to overwhelm with its testosterone-driven vigor.

The extent to which Daniel Harding’s conducting can be blamed for the reserved orchestral playing and choral singing is difficult to discern. Harding is, of course, admired for his leadership of Britten scores, and his attentive and rather nervous conducting (ideal in the context) of Virgin’s earlier recording of The Turn of the Screw, also with Ian Bostridge, significantly increased my expectations for this Billy Budd. Whereas Harding seemed to so intuitively take to Turn of the Screw, Billy Budd seems to elude him to a degree. Nothing is sloppy or obviously wrongheaded, but it could be justifiably argued that Harding occasionally takes too long in making a particular point, undermining the larger structure of the drama. There is evident musical finesse and an impressive command of orchestral color, but the emotional essence of Billy Budd is not given its due. This contributes to a ponderous manner that, rather than enhancing the weight of the drama (as may have been the intention), weighs down the performance.

Among the secondary cast, there is much impressive singing, not least from the wonderfully articulate and touching Novice’s Friend of baritone Roderick Williams, who also sings the role of Arthur Jones. Darren Jeffery also makes much of his contributions as the Second Mate and Gunner’s Mate. Andrew Staples’ singing as the Maintop is consistently beautiful despite the treacherous tessitura, and both Daniel Teadt (as Donald) and Andrew Tortise (as Squeak) cope with near-equal poise with their challenging music. Among the lower voices on deck, as it were, the balance of the opera is nearly upset by imperturbably fine singing from Neal Davies as Mr. Redburn, Jonathan Lemalu as Mr. Flint, Matthew Rose as Mr. Ratcliffe, and Matthew Best as Dansker. Each of these singers animates his lines with good diction and generally lovely tone, creating an ensemble with life and tentative camaraderie that, sadly, can only partially compensate for the equivalent deficiency among the chorus.

Special mention must be made of the Novice of young tenor Andrew Kennedy, an ideal convergence of artist and role at precisely the right time in his career. The tone is fresh, bright, and very beautiful, and the weight of the voice is of near-perfect proportions for the music. Mr. Kennedy’s dramatic instincts are spot-on in a role that too often seems a whiner: this Novice is genuinely devastated by his unfair punishment (another instance of that betrayal in a personal relationship within the vaster community, as becomes apparent when the Novice later sings to Claggart, ‘And you said you’d protect me, spoke so fatherly to me when you found me crying.’), tremblingly eager to do Claggart’s bidding in order to prevent further punishment, touching in his sadness at being forced by fear to betray Billy, and honest with his trepidation at confronting Billy with his false exhortation to mutiny. This is perhaps the most impressive Novice on records, and Mr. Kennedy’s beautiful voice and pensive manner of singing suggest a very promising Vere of the future.

The Vere of the present is Ian Bostridge, a celebrated singer whose work I have almost always failed to enjoy. His Peter Quint as recorded for Harding was a strange creature, and Vere certainly has his own neuroses. Taken on its own merits, Mr. Bostridge’s is an interesting and effective Vere, quite different from the noted portrayals by Sir Peter Pears, Philip Langridge, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Mr. Bostridge’s voice is a small one that retains something of the British choirboy timbre, somewhat white in tone and of limited resources of both range and dynamics. Vere is a thoughtful man, however, certainly more scholar than warrior despite the enthusiasm of his crew (he is encountered below deck reading Plutarch, after all), and the element of aristocratic bearing inherent in Mr. Bostridge’s performance is not inappropriate. This performance differs from that of Sir Peter Pears in that Pears’ aloofness from his crew derived from an emotional complexity that was foreign to the men under his command: with Mr. Bostridge’s Vere, there is the sense that the distance between captain and crew is more intellectual than emotional. This Vere recognizes Billy as good and Claggart as evil (as he states explicitly) almost in the manner of mythological or historical figures. With Pears’ Vere, there was a discernible connection with Billy as an embodiment of the humanistic philosophical ideal of Good. Mr. Bostridge’s conception is a valid approach to the role, and the sometimes preening mannerisms of his singing that can approach archness (he seemingly has never met a word with an ‘r’ that cannot be trilled, for instance) do not intrude as greatly into an effective performance of Vere as they might in another role. Examined solely as singing, Mr. Bostridge occasionally struggles with the tessitura, with some efforts in the upper register being decidedly more effortful than others, but the basic sound of the voice is not unappealing. Though there are subtle reservations and certain differences from what might be considered an ideal Vere after the Pears model, this is a credible and engaging performance, a success if not an absolute triumph for Mr. Bostridge, and surely one of his finest performances on records.

Claggart, Melville’s and Britten’s personification of manifested evil, is sung in this performance by Israeli bass-baritone Gidon Saks (who also sang Hunding in a vocally accomplished Walküre that I attended at Washington National Opera). Suspicions that Mr. Saks is artificially producing sounds darker than are naturally at his command build as the performance progresses, but nothing is shirked or short-changed. The malevolent histrionics are occasionally painted in colors that are too bold, robbing the performance of nuance and psychological depth. Mr. Saks underplays the homoeroticism suggested in his monologue (and increasingly – wrongly – at the heart of productions of the opera), creating an impression more of jealousy than of any carnal desire, but he allows a lyrical line and caressing of the text to inform his singing in a manner that offers an expectedly tender facet to a decidedly nasty personality. This Claggart’s cruelty, particularly with the Novice, seems less masochistic than merely crass. As with Vere, this is not a performance that sets a standard for the role but is nonetheless effective in context.

Foremost attention, especially among American listeners, may well be upon Nathan Gunn, here singing Billy as he has done throughout the world during the past decade. Equipped with a physique ideal for the role and a baritone of medium weight, Mr. Gunn has enjoyed enormous success in many of the world’s greatest opera houses with his performances of Billy Budd. In the context of an audio recording, and even more so in one drawn from concert performances, it is only the vocal profile that Mr. Gunn brings to the role that can be considered. In this regard, he faces comparisons with very impressive competitors: the simply ideal Uppman, hand-picked by Britten for the opera’s first night (and thankfully recorded from the wings by the singer’s wife); the burly Glossop, who sang the role under Britten’s direction for the DECCA recording; Thomas Hampson, another American appreciated for the refinement of his singing (and also recorded in concert performances given in Manchester); and Simon Keenlyside, a manly but poetic Billy born to the tradition. If one considers only the voices of these singers, taking into account none of the quirks of their individual interpretations, Mr. Gunn comes in at the bottom of the list, his voice firm and attractive but not of memorably superb quality. Factoring in the characterizations, the field becomes more muddied. With Uppman, one encountered a Billy uncompromisingly good, quick to piques of temperament because he was incapable of comprehending anything but honest, plain dealing with his comrades. Glossop’s Billy was a resoundingly proper bloke, a bit of a simpleton surely, but to his fingertips the sort of forthright, blissfully uncomplicated chap with whom every man wants to share a pint at day’s end. Hampson’s Billy was a dreamer, an Everyman poet, and rather too much so, but resolute in adherence to his ideals of loyalty and transparency. Keenlyside’s Billy, more thoughtful than some, matched an abundant good nature with a youthfully exuberant spirit. With Mr. Gunn’s Billy, one senses few if any of these traits: it is merely a thoroughly capable performance, often genuinely beautiful and never less than professional, by a very good baritone. It is easy to admire the secure tone and competence that permeate Mr. Gunn’s singing, but he does not create a Billy who lingers in the memory or inspires true empathy.

Lacking a central protagonist with a persona justifying the focus of an opera of this stature and a sense of the propulsive, destructive community so crucial in a Britten score, this Billy Budd – a very musical performance with many positive aspects – fails to generate the incredible power that lurks beyond the notes. On the whole, despite what was almost certainly scrupulous preparation and an expensive cast, the recording satisfies as a distinguished performance of a repertory opera but disappoints as a recounting of the tragedy of Billy Budd.