Britten: Billy Budd ~ Hampson
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Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," based on Melville's story, is the second-best opera about life on the sea since Wagner's "Flying Dutchman"--the best being Britten's "Peter Grimes." It is one of the 20th Century's most tragic operas and the only important opera with an all-male cast. Its music evokes the ocean: the winds and waves, the sailors' songs, and the harsh realities of a seaman's life on a British 18th-century man-of-war. It climaxes in a deadly confrontation between pure good, embodied in the young sailor Billy Budd (Hampson), and pure evil in the sadistic master at arms, John Claggart (Halfvarson). Composed in 1951, it was shortened to the now standard two acts by Britten for a broadcast in 1960. This brilliant first recording of the original four-act version shows that much was lost in the revision. --Joe McLellan
Top customer reviews
One may have favorites of those who have sung the tricky role of Billy Budd (Theodore Uppman, Sir Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside, Richard Stilwell, Nathan Gunn, Rod Gilfry, Bo Skovhus, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes), but the authority which Thomas Hampson brings to this role is amazing. Though there have been many fine Captain Veres, Anthony Rolfe Johnson seems to have captured that fine line between authority and compassion: his prologue is hauntingly beautiful. Yet even the small parts are well sung. But the star of this recording is the wholly satisfying orchestral presence as brought out by Kent Nagano. Even though the operaphile may have other recordings of this great masterpiece, this recording is a jewel that will enhance even more the appreciation of the genius of this work. Grady Harp, May 10
Nagano conducts the original 4-act version, but his tempos are vigorous enough to capture the whole opera on 2 CDs (other recordings, even of the revised 2-act version, take three). Abetted by sonics that are super-charged with vitality, Nagaono papers over the stretches of less-than-compelling music that crop up, and he uses ever-shifting orchestral color to enliven the potential monotony of an all-male opera.
Of the leads, Rolfe-Johnson stands out for his haunted, emotionallly driven Vere, the best reading in dramatic terms since Pears premiered the role. Hampson doesn't sound as young as Simon Keenlyside on the Hickox set, or as charmistmatic and innocent as Thomas Uppmann at the premiere, but he is a great interpreter of this role, once you accept that he often sounds more like Thomas Hampson than a gang-pressed British sailor. Halfverson sings a dark Claggart with plenty of ocnviction, but there is wobble in his voice, and it clouds his diciton. The minor roles are sung very well; the chorus is the best on ecords.
Altogether, this is a riveting musical experience, and it should convert many American listeners to one of the masterpieces of opera in English, a work fully the equal and in some ways the superior to Peter Grimes, which is much better known in this country.
The singers are somewhat variable, but in general the rather substantial (all-male) cast acquits itself pretty well. Thomas Hampson is generally effective in the title role, but his singing is sometimes in fact a little rough, and he does not always succeed in creating an ideally convincing portrait. Anthony Rolfe Johnson takes a little time to warm up (the opera was recorded live), but when he does he is actually pretty superb. Eric Halvarson's menacing Claggart is thoroughly convincing, however, and most of the minor roles are splendidly cast.
The Hallé orchestra responds well under Kent Nagano, and there are many marvelously colorful passages. There is plenty of drama and urgency here as well (the speeds are overall on the quick side), but overall he doesn't quite manage to generate the kind of momentum or dramatic unity the opera ideally needs (speed is not by itself the way to do it). The chorus is sometimes a little bland as well - they do indeed generate some feisty power in the more rousing choral scenes, but lacks a little bite. Nonetheless this is a pretty good recording overall (I certainly do not wish to exaggerate my concerns), and it is definitely an important document. A last caveat: It would have been very helpful if Erato had provided some more detail on the exact changes between this and the revised version for those of us who don't know every detail of the opera by heart. Still, this remains a very recommendable release, and a must for fans of the composer in general and this opera in particular.