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Britten Billy Budd (ENO 1988)

This DVD of Billy Budd is taken from a distinguished filming of the notable 1988 ENO production, which I remember well seeing in the large Coliseum, which has long served as London's second opera house. It is here on the TV square 4:3 format; perhaps you may be able to persuade yourself that this heightens the claustrophobic atmosphere of the opera?

Tim Albery's stage production for the Coliseum was pared down, without no more than a suggestion of shipboard surroundings in the late 18 century, save for an indication that the sailors' quarters are cramped and the regime under which they live brutal; more like a prison from our perspective. Around 1960 Britten had revised and compressed the opera to two acts for TV.

The libretto (Forster & Crozier) wears well, with telling cameos in short scenes. Not too much realism; it is an opera and could be nothing else. There are Handelian phrase repetitions to get the text across, and for long stretches the subtitles are not essential, though they are helpful for the nautical jargon which helps to place the action before and after an abortive, frustrating engagement with the French navy, the tension built up only to dissipate as the wind drops. The chorus is important, but unashamedly operatic.

The real drama is personal, driven by the suave, exploitative villainy of the psychopathic Claggart, an Iago like character whose chilling lack of any human empathy is something of a mystery, even to himself. He is depicted clearly, without exaggeration, by Richard van Allan, an ENO stalwart most recently enjoyed in the short-lived Savoy Opera's Figaro.

Philip Langridge in one of his most elequent assumptions is Captain Vere, central in the action and reflective in old age; a tortured intellectual at sea, unable to influence the inexorable tragedy which devoured both villain and the flawed, stammering hero. A marvellous touch is the halo of brightness upon the door behind which Vere himself announces the fatal verdict to the doomed sailor, an epitome of goodness who accepted being pressganged without a trace of resentment. In this, his last performance in the role, Thomas Allen was by then perhaps a little old for the naive Budd who sees only the best in everyone until it is too late; his scene whilst awaiting the final dawn and execution is deeply moving, and Albery contrives a 'double take' with the aged Vere (looking rather like pictures of E M Forster) contemplating the flaws in his own character and agonising about what might have been during the final scene of execution (off stage) and rumbling disaffection quickly quelled.

It is thoroughly gripping on the small screen and the sound of David Atherton's orchestra and Britten's all-male protagonists vividly projected. Benjamin Britten was one of the first to compose opera specifically for TV (Owen Wingrave) but this DVD is a good corrective for those who still feel that TV opera is a doomed genre; the decision to rely mostly on close ups brings the poignancy of the human drama close to us without lessening the emotional impact. Strongly recommended.


© Peter Grahame Woolf