Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Billy Budd @ Barbican Hall, London

7 December 2007

Billy Budd

Billy Budd: Ian Bostridge

A week in which enthusiastic fans of Benjamin Britten could have seen four of his operas in London ended with two concert performances of Billy Budd at the Barbican. Daniel Harding conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a convincing performance of this grandest of Britten’s operatic works. The ostensible star of the concerts was tenor Ian Bostridge, giving his first Captain Vere.

Whether you like him or not, and there seems to be plenty of people in either camp, Bostridge is an artist who always delivers intelligent and sensitive performances. He seems to be growing into the older Pears parts but there’s some way to go. While he was precise and accurate as Vere, there was something missing from the characterisation. World-weariness may come with maturity but there’s also a lack of physical commitment that is worrisome about him both in concert and opera. This was a Vere who was far more believable as the Plutarch scholar than the “giant in battle” and he wasn’t a commander a crew of hard-bitten seamen would revere.

As Billy Budd, Nathan Gunn was also lacking something. He’s good-looking and likeable enough but didn’t show the kind of charisma that would make him the object of adoration. An experienced Budd, he sang with hardly a reference to the score but his attractive baritone lacked a dramatic edge.

As the third main protagonist, Gidon Saks was far more impressive, a handsome Claggart, dripping with malevolence and dark through and through. He brought a brooding sensuality to the part and was astonishing in his Iago-like credo of hatred and self-loathing.

The rest of the ensemble was strong with some vivid portrayals of men holed-up in a claustrophobic and isolated environment. Jonathan Lemalu was particularly noticeable as Flint and Andrew Kennedy‘s sadly abused Novice also made an impact but, overall, there were no weaknesses in the line-up of penguin-suited officers and casually-dressed men. The powder-monkeys, hinting at Britten’s life-long concern for mis-used youth, added a sweet note and the Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus also made a largely excellent contribution.

Despite some stupendous writing, Billy Budd is a work that can be languorous and always feels like a long evening. Some of Harding’s tempi contributed to the problem on this occasion with some passages drawn out and in need of greater drive. Nevertheless, this was an exciting account, with tremendous climaxes and sensitive oases of reflection amidst the ever-present threat of action. In the opera house, the shimmering colours of the score can get dissipated but, here, the concentration of a concert performance brought out all the symphonic qualities of the work and made for an evening not lacking in thrills.

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