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Basia con fuoco, June 2019

John Mark Ainsley is inimitably good as Vere and Philip Ens convince as the evil spirit Claggart. Ben Johnson is a very moving Novice and Jeremy White a more than excellent Dansker. © 2019 Basia con fuoco Read complete review

Alan Swanson
Fanfare, November 2012

The Glyndebourne Billy Budd has generally received fine reviews, but I think it by far a performance that tops the lot, and it receives a production that fits. © 2012 Fanfare

Barry Forshaw
Classical CD Choice, February 2012

Truly, we live in a golden age of great opera recordings where a performance of Britain’s masterpiece—perhaps his greatest operatic achievement outside Peter Grimes—can be set down in an edition as exemplary as this. Singing, staging and recording are all non-pareil. Glyndebourne has a long association with the operas of Benjamin Britten, but until 2010 had never staged Billy Budd. Handsome amends are made here. © 2012 Classical CD Choice

Alan Swanson
Fanfare, January 2012

there is a musical clarity and balance to the overall texture…and this production of it must be the best ever. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

MusicWeb International, December 2011

I said in June that this was the best opera DVD of the year so far. I’m now certain that Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd is the best opera DVD of the whole year. Outstanding in every way. © MusicWeb International

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, November 2011

BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (NTSC) OA1051D
BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7086D

Rarely has there been such depth, such richness of insight in an operatic staging. The acting is intense, realistic, fully, painfully human.

The musical performance is also a fine one. Each singer is fully integrated into the production and fully aware of his emotions, giving his very best in a most heart-felt manner. Clarity and intelligence inform the tragic beauty of Ainsley’s singing.

This is a masterpiece of a production of a masterpiece of an opera.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jon Alan Conrad
Opera News, October 2011

BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (NTSC) OA1051D
BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7086D

Theater director Michael Grandage scored an enormous success at last year’s Glyndebourne Festival with this production of Billy Budd, which introduced Britten’s opera to the company.

In order for its power to emerge, Melville’s story…needs convincing realization of its depiction of life on a British man-of-war in 1797. This is exactly what Grandage provides.

Jacques Imbrailo…command[s] the stage…with an unfailing good humor and friendliness that make plausible everyone’s certainty of Billy’s “goodness.” His medium-weight baritone proves just right for the challenging music.

…the large cast is filled with strong voices and individual presences. The production also makes a splendid showcase for the men of the Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master Jeremy Bines) and for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Mark Elder secures razor-sharp execution, transparent textures, overwhelming massed impact and thrilling realization of Britten’s nonstop coloristic invention.

Video direction is clear-cut and effective, with shifts in perspective invariably well chosen musically and dramatically…this one can be warmly recommended as a musically stunning and dramatically straightforward (in the most complimentary sense) telling of the tale.

Richard Fairman
Gramophone, September 2011

BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (NTSC) OA1051D
BRITTEN, B.: Billy Budd (Glyndebourne, 2010) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7086D

Almost two decades after Humphrey Carpenter’s controversial biography of Britten, opera directors have woken up to some of its revelations. Productions such as Richard Jones’s Billy Budd set in a boys’ naval college and ENO’s recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream have put forward radical reinterpretations.

By their side, Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd is traditional to a fault. Michael Grandage is true to both the period and the place—the HMS Indomitable during the Napoleonic Wars—and, more importantly, to the atmosphere and characters as Britten imagined them. Further than that, though, he does not venture: even traditional productions can do more to reveal the opera’s undercurrents, whether it is the sexual tensions, the Christian symbolism or the downfall of an archetypal hero redolent of a Greek tragedy.

On DVD, as in the theatre, Grandage’s honest faithfulness feels too mild. Still, the interior of HMS Indomitable looks mightily impressive and the stage is stunningly lit. Add to this some highly effective filming—how subtly, for example, the camera picks out Billy’s worried expression as he watches the Novice suffering—and you have a DVD of high quality.

In the title-role, Jacques Imbrailo fields just the right youthful lyric baritone and sings Billy’s solo below decks beautifully. John Mark Ainsley gets to the heart of Captain Vere, every close-up showing an artist immersed in his role, and Phillip Ens sings gravely as a Claggart who seems sadly resigned to his lot, rather than an active force of destruction. There are fine contributions from Matthew Rose as Mr Flint, Ben Johnson as the Novice and Iain Paterson as Mr Redburn but all are more than adequate…

Frank Behrens
Art Times, August 2011

The cast is a strong one, especially with the three major characters whose triad shapes the work as a whole. There is the highly educated and moral Captain Vere (truth) of the HMS Indomitable (John Mark Ainsley), who first appears as an old man recalling the incident that changed his life. There is Master-at-Arms Claggart (Phillip Ens), whose hatred of Billy is explained in the quotation that starts this essay. Ens is a small man, who can dominate the stage vocally. His monologue explaining his hatred of Budd bears comparison with Iago’s “Credo” aria in Verdi’s “Otello.”

Jacques Imbrailo plays Billy not as a saint (as Terence Stamp did in the film version) but as an innocent who thinks all men as decent as he is. His believing in Claggart’s friendship is quite in character.

… The work…does have power and this Opus Arte release is very much worth the seeing.

…This diminishes the use of the album for educational purposes.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, June 2011

Glyndebourne’s 2010 production of Billy Budd was the company’s first and was an out and out triumph among the critics. Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph scrambled for superlatives when he said, “I was enthralled beyond my wildest hopes by this stupendous achievement, and scarcely know where to begin lavishing praise.” It now appears on DVD and, for those of us who couldn’t get a ticket, it confirms the production’s promise triumphantly.

For Budd Glyndebourne recruited Michael Grandage, Artistic Director at the Donmar Warehouse, who here directs his first opera. However, his touch is so sure that it feels as though he has been doing this for years. The first glory of the production is the set, a brilliant rib-cage of a ship’s interior designed by Christopher Oram, a regular collaborator of Grandage’s. The set feels hermetically sealed, reinforcing the claustrophobia of this world, but its real mark of genius is that its tiers re-create the tiers of the Glyndebourne auditorium so that the theatre’s galleries seem to continue on into the stage, making the audience feel every bit as much a part of the action as the singers on stage. Likewise, when Vere appears on the quarterdeck of the ship, he not only commands the Indomitable but the audience in the theatre as well. There are two short “extra” features, one of which deals with the design specifically and is extremely informative; the other is a more general introduction to the work and this production.

Grandage brings a theatre director’s touch to the acting of the characters, which here is every bit as important as the singing. Happily, both are outstanding. John Mark Ainsley’s Vere is deeply conflicted, not just in his words but in his gestures. He fidgets with unease in his cabin at the opening of the second scene of Act 1, and his body seems saturated with utter powerlessness during the court-martial scene. Yet his stage presence in the prologue and epilogue seems to go through a transformation: from the troubled, restless aristocrat of the opening he seems to take on a grander stature so that, by the time of the epilogue, he has faced up to his past and gained a new assurance in the words “he has saved me.” Interestingly, during the execution scene it is the older Vere who witnesses events on stage, reliving and reimagining the events that have haunted him ever since. Ainsley’s is not a conventionally beautiful voice, but he uses his bright timbre to great effect and his vocal acting is incredibly incisive so that he is never less than completely convincing.

The part of Billy is a triumph for Jacques Imbrailo. He enters into the character quite astonishingly, achieving marvellous identification with him, through body as well as voice. His boyish mannerisms encapsulate all of the Billy’s youthful innocence and naïve charm and he makes him so endearing in the enthusiasm with which he gives himself wholeheartedly to every task. Imbrailo bounds around the stage with engaging energy, and his face (especially his eyes) embody all of the character’s charming vigour, as well as his sense of impending doom in his soliloquy. His voice is just as young and energetic, though not so boyish as to remove any sense of masculinity. The production rests on his shoulders and does so securely.

His nemesis, the black-voiced Claggart of Phillip Ens, is his antithesis in every way. Grandage dresses Claggart in dark colours from top to toe and Ens’ cavernous bass embodies Claggart’s malevolent darkness completely. He is deeply sinister and neither he nor Grandage shrink from the sexual undercurrent of the work, always bubbling dangerously just below the surface and threatening to engulf the Master-at-Arms. However, Ens also makes him a character to pity as well as to fear: his blighted vision of the world has cut him off from human society and we see him as hopeless and loveless in his “own dark world”. Ens never blusters, always maintaining an almost alluring silkiness to his voice—nowhere more so than in his meeting with Vere at the start of Act 2—so that Claggart is never a caricature but always a person to be reckoned with.

The rest of the cast provide outstanding support. Glyndebourne is famous for the quality of its collective achievement, and they have assembled a crew of sailors in whom there is no weak link. Special mention goes to Iain Paterson’s Redburn, rich and fulsome of voice, and brilliantly acted. I loved the way he pronounced Claggart’s name, in the first act, with a mixture of contempt, admiration and terror, and the regret with which he carries out Billy’s sentence is palpable, not least in the snarl with which he pronounces the words “Gentlemen, the court rises”. Likewise, Matthew Rose’s Flint is rich and resonant, sharing many of Redburn’s regrets but equally determined to see out the task. Other standouts include the sympathetic Dansker of Jeremy White, the fantastic Novice of Ben Johnson and Alasdair Elliott’s Whiskers, who journeys from comic self-parody to wounded self-knowledge.

Again and again Grandage’s vision of the piece brings it to life brilliantly. The opening of Act 2, when the French ship is sighted, is tremendously exciting, and the full ensemble at Billy’s execution is terrifying in its grandeur, but he also pinpoints the human dramas with expertise, such as the lovely scene when Dansker visits the condemned Billy on his last night alive, or the characterisation of each sailor during the scene below decks at the end of Act 1, and the scene with the flogged Novice is very moving. Scene changes are subtle but very effective, evoking great differences with little touches, and the sets that glide in for Vere’s cabin or the sailors’ quarters seem to do so in union with the orchestra, evoking the majesty of Britain’s phenomenal score all the more powerfully.

The singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus is beyond praise, as is the top-notch playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Mark Elder reveals himself to be a dramatist every bit as gifted as Grandage, pacing the work with a keen sense of movement but not so hurried as to leave no room for contemplation. It really seems as though everybody involved in this project knew they were collaborating on something special and gave the very best of themselves to produce work of startlingly high quality.

There isn’t a lot of competition for Billy Budd on DVD, but even with the little there is this DVD immediately jumps to the top of the recommendable list. The only Billy that is more convincing is Hickox’s outstanding CD set on Chandos which contains vocal actors of the calibre of Keenlyside, Langridge and Tomlinson who are so convincing that you barely notice the lack of visuals, so vivid are the stage pictures evoked in your mind. That doesn’t take away from the stupendous triumph of this film, however. Anyone with an interest in Britten or in opera should rush to acquire it. For my money this is the best opera DVD of the year so far, and quite possibly the best in a considerably greater time period.

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