Britten's Billy Budd

Bostridge, Gunn, LSO/Harding

Barbican Hall, 9 December 2007 3 stars

Ian Bostridge

After the overwhelming popular and artistic success of Peter Grimes in 1945, Britten developed his work in all kinds of interesting directions but never again created a large-scale stage piece of quite the same consistency. During the London Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Billy Budd (1950-51, revised 1960), I kept wishing for the lightness of touch, the tautness of formal structures and the melodic invention which the composer demonstrates on almost every page of Grimes. And in spite of some excellent individual contributions and engaging moments, my final reaction after sitting through the opera's three hours was to be slightly bored by the sprawling monotony of the tale.

For me, it doesn't help that there's not a single woman in the cast - a result, of course, of the opera's setting on board ship in 1797. Both Britten and his librettist E.M. Forster must have been interested in the homoerotic tensions which this claustrophobic, homosocial setting allowed, and the story is deliberately meant to depict the failure of an all-male utopia. But the absence of a sympathetic female character such as Ellen Orford removes the opportunity for feminine contrast and a different gender perspective on the story. It also has musical implications, as far as I'm concerned: for whatever reason, Britten's writing for soprano roles such as Orford and the Governess in Turn of the Screw is far more interesting and memorable than Billy Budd's music. And likewise, the lack of aural contrasts between female and male voices in this opera means that the composer needed to be extremely resourceful with the contrasts between the tenor, baritone and bass tessituras. He did succeed in this, on the whole, but I really feel that the piece is overlong. It is so very tediously drawn out in places, and has such an inevitably fatal conclusion - after a protracted discourse of a rather banal scenario of fairly uninteresting men fighting pettily for hours - that I still can't see it as anything like the equal of the brilliantly conceived Peter Grimes.

Much is lost by doing the piece in concert, too. With no sets, the singers have to work hard to animate the opera, but the highest priority at this LSO presentation was evidently to sing the notes as accurately as possible for the live recording by EMI. There was very little room to move with such a large cast, orchestra and microphones scattered everywhere, so the results were far from operatic. An odd decision, too, not to have issued clearer instructions regarding dress: while I understand that the distinction of ranks was meant to be represented by the higher officers wearing full evening dress, I'm not sure why the lower orders were wearing such a motley selection of garments ranging from formal suits to scruffy shirts. With so little acting going on and such a score-bound set of singers, this was a feeble nod to the work's stage origins.

In the title role, Nathan Gunn was the only singer to perform from memory, and he did stand out for his more relaxed stance in this respect. However, I found his voice slightly underpowered, lacking in colour and limited in expression, and he seemed too placid and smiling. Though he reached a few lyrical climaxes, his entire performance was curiously understated - strange for a singer in a title role. And I don't feel he really got to grips with Britten's portrayal of the character's stammering, which could have been far more strangulated and painfully emotive.

Daniel Harding

The performances of Budd on 7 and 9 December inaugurated a year-long concert series dedicated to English tenor Ian Bostridge, whom we interviewed here. He was making his role debut as Captain Vere, and vocally I felt convinced by most of what he was doing. In particular, he paid great attention to the text and had very clear diction. For instance, in the opening line 'I am an old man who has experienced much', he emphasised the word 'experienced' as a way of communicating his bitter memories. This helped redress the balance as far as his age was concerned; to look at, Bostridge is still too young and slight of build to be believable as the captain of the ship and could probably act the title role more persuasively had it been written for his voice type. Nevertheless, I felt he was pouring a lot of emotion into the character through his voice, especially in the more tortured episodes in the second act, and if he could relate this to his physical performance the overall interpretation could be extremely convincing.

Taking over from John Relyea in the role of Claggart at short notice, Gidon Saks was the most powerful singer on the stage. The combination of a dinner jacket and a sparkly t-shirt seemed like odd garb for this violent, sadistic character, but Saks was clearly determined to bring the drama to life and succeeded completely. Vocally, however, I found his voice a little hollow compared to the rich bass of John Tomlinson, a great exponent of this role. And while he both looked and sounded impressive, sometimes less is more where volume is concerned: I thought he was arresting but not especially sinister.

The strength of the evening was the ensemble singing. The LSO had brought in some fabulous young stars: the golden-toned Mark Stone (Bosun), booming Adam Green (First Mate), sensitive Roderick Williams (Novice's Friend) and strongly-characterised Andrew Tortise (Squeak) gave of their all during their brief appearances. No less impressive were Neal Davies as a multi-faceted Mr Redburn, Matthew Best's noble Dansker, Daniel Teadt's rousing Donald, Alasdair Elliott's well judged Red Whiskers and particularly Jonathan Lemalu as Mr Flint (I have never heard this singer give a better performance). Three other singers stood out for me, all formerly of the Royal Opera's Jetter Parker Young Artists Programme: reliable Matthew Rose as Ratcliffe, lively Darren Jeffrey as Second Mate and especially Andrew Kennedy as a brilliantly tortured Novice. Kennedy was a model for how a concert performance of an opera can be dramatically vivid; he goes on to perform Captain Vere in Houston next year and on this showing promises to be something special. (To read our interview with Andrew Kennedy, click here.)

Yet in spite of the fact that the LSO and the London Symphony Chorus were as top-notch as ever in terms of quality of musicianship, I'm afraid the evening was a let-down for me because of the conducting of Daniel Harding. Almost from the beginning, I found it hard to decipher his arm movements, which often bore little resemblance to the music being played. The playing had an air of uncertainty about it, with quite a few missed entries, and the lack of momentum and fluidity was undoubtedly due to Harding's vague baton technique. The two orchestral interludes towards the end were unbelievably slow and boring, and while a number of climaxes were thrilling in a surface sense, I found the sound overloud rather than tonally substantial. The Gentlemen of the Chorus sang well and joined in with the spirit of the opera, though there were intonation problems with the tenors, who even sounded a bit ragged in the second act.

The concerted number at the beginning of Act II summed up the three main problems: there was little feeling of the surging sea in the orchestra, no sense of journey or momentum, and poor definition between the vocal parts. Exceptional contributions from the harp, brass section and lead cello couldn't save a somewhat desperate reading of this problematic piece, and while excitement was generated along the way, the evening as a whole left me cold.

By Dominic McHugh

To read our interview with Ian Bostridge on Captain Vere and his Homeward Bound series, click here. To read our interview with Andrew Kennedy, click here.