- Billy Budd, opera, Op. 50
"Billy Budd" is above all an ensemble piece, and the release by Virgin, with Daniel Harding conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, admirably succeeds in conveying the intensity of life on the man-of-war. The complexity of the claustrophobic shipboard community is apparent in the strongly etched characterization each singer brings to his part, no matter how small. Still, the effectiveness of the opera ultimately depends on the believability of the principals, Captain Vere, Claggart, and Billy Budd. Ian Bostridge's Vere is reminiscent of Peter Pears' portrayal, and while there are similarities in their voices, Bostridge's is a considerably more appealing instrument. Having a tenor with such a light voice in the role, though, undercuts the authority that the Captain is supposed to command, so that his inaction in defending Billy Budd seems not so much like an anomalous failure of will in a powerful leader, but as an overly sensitive philosopher's vacillation in the face of moral complexity. Part of the difficulty lies with the way Britten and his librettists have framed the part, but it poses a real dilemma for the performer. The fact that Bostridge is so young sounding makes it even harder for him to embody Vere's authority. Gidon Saks' Claggart is a fully convincing portrayal of black-hearted evil. His voice has the depth and darkness the role requires and he conveys a chilling ferocity in the hatred that Billy's goodness elicits from him. Nathan Gunn has been an iconic Billy Budd, so it's good to have his performance captured on disc. He brings great warmth to the role and is persuasive in expressing Billy's uncomplicated honesty. In his final poignant monologues, Gunn sings with radiant directness. Harding's conducting and the performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are subtly nuanced and build to a powerful climax. Virgin's recording creates an effective sense of dramatic separation, and its sound is clean and spacious.