Friday, 26 September 2008

New BILLY BUDD Britten Harding LSO Bostridge Barbican

Brand new recording of Britten's Billy Budd. Daniel Harding conducts the LSO at the Barbican. This performance changed the whole way I listen to Billy Budd. Previously it wasn't a favourite as performances usually take the "talking heads" approach to the voices and action. But this performance is radically different. It makes a compelling case for Billy Budd as symphony, an orchestral work that uses voices to extend its impact, not "opera" in the usual sense of singers against a backdrop. Suddenly, Billy Budd is revealed as extremely sophisticated musical writing, where the real action is hidden in the orchestration, not what's happening with the actors. Captain Vere's dilemma "is" the central and absolute drama of the entire piece. "My life's broken. It's not his trial, it's mine, mine. It is I whom the Devil awaits". This opera isn't even about Billy, but about how people respond to difficult ethical situations.Billy Budd was written during the McCarthy era with its hysterical witch hunts. Britten was no fool.. It is significant how much he makes of the political paranoia of 1797, for it is pertinent to the "danger" the ship and its crew are in. Britten was emotionally reticent, knowing it could be dangerous to be too open, unsafe to be candid. So Billy stammers incoherently where he could save himself with clear explanations. Similarly, Captain Vere pulls back from the brink when he could have intervened. Billy Budd is an allegory where Britten expresses unfathomably deep emotions without revealing them except to those sensitive enough to listen.Harding’s emphasis on the orchestra is thus psychologically as well as musically astute. Here the ocean is a protagonist, every bit as much as the singing roles. Indeed, against the wild forces of nature, the 'Indomitable' isn’t indomitable; it’s vulnerable, and can be destroyed by fate as capriciously as Billy himself is destroyed. Through the orchestra, the ocean takes central stage, turbulent and intense. Huge crescendos build up like mighty waves, but even more impressive is the undertow of dark, murmuring sound that surges ever forwards. Above this, currents flowed diagonally across the orchestra, first violins flowing to brass and basses and back, just as ships lurch back and forth. You could get seasick if you focussed too hard, but that is the point, for Britten is showing that the “floating world” aboard ship is unsteady, far removed from the certainties of dry land. Just like the enveloping mists, all points of moral reference are hidden. “Lost in the infinite sea”, sings Captain Vere, a refrain that recurs repeatedly, in voice and in the orchestra.

This ship is in full sail, you can feel the wind and see the open horizon. This is an important to the narrative, because it reflects the sense that supernatural forces are propelling Billy and Captain Vere inevitably towards their fate. More subtly though, this also expresses something about why Billy loves being up high in the foretop, riding the rigging, high up on the mast. He’s such a free spirit that even death cannot extinguish him. That’s why, perhaps, that he moves ahead, always forward, instead of dwelling on past sorrows. “No more looking down from the heights to the depths !” he sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm…I see where she’s bound for.” It's not for nothing that Britten starts the opera with Vere reflecting on the past and ends with him being liberated, at last understanding what Billy meant.
Britten has been Harding’s speciality since he was in his teens, when he was conducting the Britten Sinfonia. Most of his career has been spent in European circles, where Britten’s music is perhaps less performed than in Britain, but this is an advantage because it makes his approach feel so individual. He has also worked with the LSO and with Bostridge for over 12 years, so the partnership is deeply rooted. Hence the vividness and cohesion in this performance. Take for example the Battle sequence, which bristled with vigour and alertness. There, extreme tension built up in the orchestra, instruments and voices traversing the music in stark staccato, and disciplined formation. Everything seems to be going on at the same time in different directions, voices interjecting, solo instruments leaping into prominence, the choir at full blast. Yet it’s all clearly defined and distinct. To stretch the maritime metaphor a little further: a conductor is like the captain of a ship and there are many reasons why precision gets results. Conductors, like captains, don’t waffle aimlessly and confuse their players, but lead their crew purposefully into action.
One of Harding’s particular strengths is his ability to focus on the fundamental direction of whatever music he conducts. Thus he understands the Battle in the wider context of the opera: jus as the men are about to board the French ship, mist descends and the French escape. The excitement builds to fever pitch but descends into anti-climax. Nothing is resolved. It’s another parallel to Captain Vere’s dilemma, when he pulls back from saving Billy even though he knows in his heart that he could /should do so, if only he dared.

Britten's writing for Vere is the most complex in the whole opera, for he is its true centre.
The men call don't call him "Starry Vere", for nothing, and the "God Bless you, Starry Vere" chorus is beautifully transcendant. Like Billy, his natural habitat is way, way above the decks and hold where Claggart and his brutish bullies reign. Britten has him spouting about Scylla and Charybdis, for he's educated, an intellectual, someone who thinks and makes moral judgements. In contrast, the other characters, even Billy, merely act and react without much mental process. Captain Vere represents the finer part of mankind, capable of seeing beyond and above the immediate. Ian Bostridge is a perfect Vere, tortured and intense, utterly aware of the portent of what he must do. Even in old age, he can't find resolution until he realizes that each man is ultimately master of his own fate, and Billy's choice, so beautifully expressed in the song Through the port comes moonshine astray, was a vision Billy could live by and die with, whatever Vere might have done. Nathan Gunn's Billy at first bothered me because his voice is so light : yet why not ? Billy is a symbol, an ideal, and is a counterpart to Vere on a less sophisticated level. This performance showed how he, too, is 0ne of Britten's innocents, doomed because purity itself is doomed by fate itself, rather than by the actions of others, That's why Vere gets deliverance. Billy Budd deserves its place in the pantheon of Britten's most profound work.GET THIS RECORDING !

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