Britten: Billy Budd. – Kent Nagano, Thomas Hampson, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Halle Orchestra – sound recording reviews
Benjamin Britten–Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, as he was called after Queen Elizabeth II bestowed a life peerage on him–may have been the last serious composer to both attract a wide audience and earn the respect of scholars and musicologists, no matter what their aesthetic predisposition.
The revelation of his homosexuality–the worst-kept secret in England was Britten’s lifetime partnership with tenor Peter Pears–prompted renewed interest in his music from the critical community after his death in 1976.
The record industry has followed suit. Billy Budd lays considerable claim to being Britten’s finest opera, but until now we have been denied a commercial recording of the original four-act 1951 version. Britten set him self a formidable task in adapting Herman Melville’s haunting parable of innocence destroyed, including writing a full-evening work exclusively for male voices, and in conferring theatrical credibility upon a literary conceit. The protagonist is Captain Vere, who, despite some awareness of Billy’s saintliness, must sentence the handsome fore-top man to death for murdering Claggart, the thoroughly evil master-at-arms. Vere, written for Pears, is another of the incomparable outsider portraits that have enriched the lyric theater during the past 50 years.
The new recording was made in conjunction with a concert performance in Manchester, England, with Halle Orchestra maestro Kent Nagano conducting a performance of immense vigor and sensitivity. Two Americans, baritone Thomas Hampson and bass Eric Halfvarson, sing Budd and Claggart, respectively. And Pears himself might have admired Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s anguished Vere. A different presentation of the work arrives on TV June 3, when PBS telecasts a 1997 performance of John Dexter’s superb production for New York’s Metropolitan Opera of the revised 1960 Billy Budd.
Hampson stars too in Teldec’s War Requiem, which premiered at the 1962 reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the blitz of World War II. Britten planned to write solo parts for singers from three of the combatant countries involved in that conflagration (England, Germany, the Soviet Union), but the work, a masterpiece that juxtaposes parts of the Catholic mass for the dead with verses by World War I poet Wilfred Owen, has transcended its origins. Here Hampson is joined by fellow Americans soprano Carol Vaness and tenor Jerry Hadley and an American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, conducted by a German, Kurt Masur. Music has never seemed dike such a universal language.
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