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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten's powerful tale of injustice on the high seas.
by Paul Pelkonen
San Francisco days: Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd.
Image © 2007 San Francisco Opera.

Billy Budd is one of Benjamin Britten's most effective operas, the tale of an innocent seaman gang-pressed aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable during the Napoleonic Wars. Once there, Billy runs afoul of John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. Claggart, a malevolent, Iago-like figure decides to frame Billy for mutiny. Although the shipboard rebellion never happens, Billy still swings at the end of a rope.

Injustice, repressed homosexual lust and the horrors of war are central themes of Billy Budd. The taut libretto, by E.M. Forster, is based on the short novel of the same title by Herman Melville, ranked among that author's work second only to Moby Dick. The Met mounts a realistic shipboard production, with good opportunities for the company's exceptional male chorus as the crew of the Indomitable.

The cast of this revival features baritone Nathan Gunn in the title role. Bass-baritone James Morris takes on the key role of John "Jemmy Legs" Claggart. This is the Met's first revival of the 1978 production to appear in 15 years. 

Watch James Morris sing Claggart's aria from Act I of Billy Budd

Recording Recommendations:
London Symphony Orchestra cond. Benjamin Britten (Decca, 1968)
Billy Budd: Peter Glossop
John Claggart: Michael Langdon
Captain Vere: Peter Pears
The composer himself conducts this superb Decca recording, engineered by John Culshaw. Currently available as part of Britten conducts Britten, a series collecting the composer's complete operas, orchestral works and liturgical pieces.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Daniel Harding (Virgin, 2008)
Billy Budd: Nathan Gunn
John Claggart: Gidon Saks
Captain Vere: Ian Bostridge
Taken from a concert performance, this (relatively) new recording of Britten's opera features Nathan Gunn in the title role. Gidon Saks is an intimidating Claggart. Ian Bostridge is odd casting in the role of Vere. Conductor Daniel Harding is one of the most promising young maestros

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