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Daniel Coombs
Audiophile Audition, February 2012

The performances in this production are excellent and, to an extent, idiomatic. A notable exception, to me, is the portrayal of Billy Budd by tenor Jacques Imbrailo. Imbrailo’s portrayal and Michael Grandage’s direction, gives this Billy a bit more naivety and innocence and a little less of the physical bravura that some previous performances (such as the original, sung by Peter Pears) have offered. John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere is the appropriate blend of refinement and a near royalty with undertones of insecurity. Phillip Ens’ Claggart is practically a scene stealer. His tone of voice and even his facial expression exudes a petty jealousy and sadism towards all his charges; the new “captain’s pet” Billy in particular.

The forces of the LPO and the Glyndebourne Chorus perform magnificently under the strong leadership of Englishman Sir Mark Elder. Special mention must be made of the production design by Christopher Oram.

I imagine anyone enjoying Britten’s music, the very fine performances in this production and the excellent Blu-ray transfer. If you already know and admire Billy Budd, this is a different, darker view and one well worth seeing for yourself. © 2012 Audiophile Audition Read complete review

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.

James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2011

…an absolutely stupendous performance in which—mirabile dictu!—the production team dedicates itself to a scrupulously accurate and imaginatively vivid realization of the creators’ intentions. The results are nothing short of spectacular…

The costumes are in harmony with the set, and the acting by all concerned is natural and unaffected, with crowd scenes of the entire ship’s crew exceptionally well conceived and managed.

The recorded sound quality is stupendous, particularly the deep, thunderous, rolling bass that rumbles through the theater without the slightest hint of dryness or muddiness.

Of the three DVD versions of Billy Budd available, this is easily the one of choice. It is superior in both film quality and the singing of the lead roles…I cannot urge you strongly enough to make this a part of your music library. It is an instant classic of opera on film, and while in the future it may be equaled, I do not see how it will ever be surpassed.

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.

Gramophone, September 2011

I could do without the opening titles “swimming” towards the viewer as if being revealed from under water. It’s an unnecessary bit of Finding Nemo in what is an atmospheric, even claustrophobic, account of Britten’s naval thriller.

The picture quality is exemplary, from the opening close-ups to the remarkable solidity of the “below decks” scenes, and the sound matches up to the sharpness and tonal range of the video. There’s a choice of LPCM stereo or dramatic DTS-HD Master Audio surround and both have impressive weight, sparkle and clarity.

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…

Lawrence Devoe, July 2011

The Performance

When Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd debuted in 1951, a few years after the triumph of Peter Grimes, the composer was abetted by a superb cast and a libretto written by no less than E. M.Forster and Eric Crozier. The story is based on Herman Melville’s novel in which a young seaman, Budd (baritone Jacques Imbrailo) is impressed into service on the HMS Indomitable during the French wars. He falls under the scrutiny of master at arms, John Claggart (bass Philip Ens) and Captain Vere (tenor John Mark Ainsley). In an allegory depicting the struggle of innocence versus evil and corruption, Billy is eventually and falsely accused of fomenting a mutiny. During his meeting with Vere and Claggart, his stammer prevents him from denying these charges. Billy kills Claggart unintentionally, is sentenced to death and then executed. Vere, as the navigator of the ship and this story, years later, regrets this decision and finds redemption in Billy’s forgiveness before he dies.

This 2010 Glyndebourne production, directed by Michael Grandage, features the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Britten expert, Mark Elder. The all-male cast, in period costume and realistic ship set, provides a strong chain with nary a weak link. The intensity and intimacy of the action is superbly realized with outstanding videography and sound reproduction.

Video Quality

This is a deliberately dark production, highlighted by numerous close-ups of the singers. The balance and perspective of the cameras is exemplary. The use of a single versatile set gives the appropriately claustrophobic nature of this psychodrama while allowing a focus on the archetypal characters, the well-meaning Vere, the handsome and innocent Billy, and the supremely evil Claggart. The pivotal and chilling apex of the opera, Claggart’s monologue, “O beauty” is highlighted with such skill that it draws the viewers into his perverted universe and chills them to the core with its malevolence.

Audio Quality

The sound engineers have done an excellent job in projecting the stage voices, while allowing the orchestra, especially the solo details, to be reproduced with great clarity. Ambience is carried out by the surround speakers, enhancing the “live” effect of this performance. The recording of the voices is so good that it renders subtitles for English speakers is completely unnecessary.

Supplemental Materials

There is a gallery of cast photos and two brief pieces on the concept of this production and its staging.

The Definitive Word


There are two SD sets of Billy Budd, both of which have strong casts, albeit less good videography or soundtracks. Nonetheless, the legacy B&W TV production on Decca DVD, featuring the legendary Peter Pears as Vere under composer Britten’s direction, presents the closest thing to this work’s original concept. The more recent English National Opera’s presentation with Sir Thomas Allen as Budd and David Atherton’s conducting is also a contender. The current set is the BD premiere and, I am delighted to report, holds sway over the field in every possible respect. The singing is beyond reproach with outstanding contributions from principal to supporting cast. Maestro Elder understands the Britten idiom, perhaps better than did the composer himself, allowing the vocal line to rise and fall as it would in spoken text. The technical aspects of the recording are as good as it gets in live opera videos. Whether you have seen Billy Budd a number of times, as have I, or are coming to it on a maiden voyage, this production is the best starting point imaginable for getting on board and relishing a real 20th century masterpiece.

Jeffrey Kauffman, June 2011

When you’re an artist named Benjamin Britten and you hail from Britain, chances are good that whatever your particular artistic pursuit turns out to be, you’ll be hailed as a national voice. That certainly was the case with Britten, one of the iconic triumvirate of later 20th century post-Elgar English composers (Vaughan Williams and Tippett being the other two), whose output remains staggering and whose contribution to the art of opera especially is unfathomable. As incredible as it may seem, Britten holds the distinction of being the 20th century opera composer with the most operas performed worldwide, certainly a testament to his prodigious output. As is mentioned in one of the featurettes accompanying Billy Budd on this new Blu-ray, Britten often dealt with the corruption (some would even go so far as to say the perversion) of innocence in his operas (probably most notably in Peter Grimes), and while the innocent Billy remains pure and unsullied to his watery grave, the decrepitude, both moral and physical, surrounding him in the late 18th century naval world culled from Herman Melville’s legendary short novella is palpable and almost unbearable at times. If this is how the British Empire triumphed over foreign powers, one has to wonder about the vagaries of "might makes right," as there is inarguably something very, very wrong about life on board the Indomitable, despite the best attempts of a moral and intellectual Captain. That in essence is the underlying conflict of Billy Budd, a piece which posits good against evil in the guise of two major characters, with perhaps the major character (Captain Vere) acting as the impotent if well-meaning arbiter between the two. There’s never been any mistaking Melville’s intent in offering Billy Budd as a Christ figure, but in Britten’s opera, this Christ is literally too good to be true, a character of gentle simplicity and complete lack of self awareness that may prevent Billy from realizing his ability to offer salvation to others (unlike the real Christ), which strangely only ups the poignancy of the opera.

Glyndebourne is a rather small opera house, at least as far as international opera houses go, but it seems ideally suited to the claustrophobic world of Billy Budd. The house is strangely nautical on its own terms, with a rounded architecture redolent of the keel of a ship, and lots of deeply burnished wood tones appointing its hallowed halls as well as the main audience area itself. In this gorgeously staged and designed production, the smallish Glyndebourne space only helps to augment the stifling world in which Billy and the other grunts on the Indomitable live and work. A basic unit set, ingeniously designed by Christopher Oram, presents us with a clear delineation of the hierarchies at play in 18th century British naval life. Billy is nowhere near the top of these strata.

Britten had long wanted to collaborate with E.M. Forster (yes, that E.M. Forster, the one who experienced a latter day fame of sorts due to innumerable film adaptations of his works by everyone from David Lean to Merchant-Ivory). Sometime around the World War II era, when Britten and his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears, had successfully lobbied to be considered conscientious objectors, Britten and Forster started bandying about ideas, but it wasn’t until 1948 that the possibility of adapting Billy Budd came up. Forster, a newcomer to the world of opera libretti, enlisted the aid of longtime Britten collaborator Eric Crozier, and by 1951 the piece was finished and was ready to make its debut. (Somewhat interestingly, in the interim between conception and completion the Italian composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini premiered his one-act opera of Billy Budd in 1949).

While the opera may be titled Billy Budd, the indisputable center of the piece is Captain Vere (John Mark Ainsley, here essaying the role created by Pears in the original). Vere is an unusually thoughtful and philosophical man, obviously an aristocrat and one who is about the polar opposite of, say, Captain Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty infamy. That doesn’t mean that things are all roses and petits fours aboard Vere’s Indomitable, mostly due to Claggart (Philip Ens), the seething and repellently malevolent Master-at-Arms who takes an immediate dislike to Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) and who vows to destroy him, simply due to the fact that Billy represents a goodness and purity that Claggart simply can’t abide.

Part of the dialectic of the opera is not just between good and evil, but due to the fact evil in the form of Claggart knows it’s bad, while good in the form of Budd is spectacularly unaware, blithely going about its business and trying gamely to cheer everyone up. That incredible naïvete has often been seen as a potentially fatal flaw in the opera, but here, under the very able direction of Michael Grandage, Imbrailo is able to offer a certain degree of innocence with an athleticism and even bravado that makes Budd the true tragic hero he needs to be. Ainsley is a minor miracle as Vere, certainly offering one of the most nuanced acting jobs in recent operatic memory and delivering Britten’s challenging and aching tenor lines with considerable emotion and energy. Ens’ Claggart is suitably shaded (in the literal—black—sense of the word) and the showdown scene between Claggart, Billy and Vere in Act II is a showcase for Ens’ beautifully understated and even slightly elegant maleficence.

In an all male opera seething with testosterone it’s rather odd, if not at all problematic, that Billy Budd turns out to be such a tender piece, despite the brutality depicted, something from which this particular production doesn’t shirk in the slightest. That’s in fact perhaps the opera’s greatest achievement, the almost simultaneous portrayal of incredible depravity and savagery contrasting with inherent good and at least the attempt at morality. As Vere laments, every time he’s experienced good, it’s been flawed (as evidenced by Billy’s debilitating stammer), and yet it’s that very experience, flawed or not, which Vere repeatedly seeks and which ultimately is the source of his remorse and regret. Vere sings movingly about the inability to achieve any meaningful answers to life’s Big Questions, but Billy Budd proves grace can at least partially ameliorate the aching wounds asking those questions may evince.

Video Quality

Billy Budd is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Opus Arte with a brilliant AVC encoded 1080i transfer in 1.78:1. This is one of the sharpest looking live performance Blu-rays so far this year, filled with incredible fine detail to the point where you can literally count the pores on some actors’ skin (for better or worse). The resplendent production design of Christopher Oram is wonderfully presented here, and even some of the potentially problematic stage effects like the introduction of mist wafting through the proscenium creates no resolving problems. Colors are somewhat muted for the bulk of the opera, save for the brief flourish of bright red military outfits in one scene, but even within the confines of the largely drab palette, gradations of hue and light are elegantly displayed. There is some very minor crush in a couple of dim scenes, notably upstage, but that is about the only niggling complaint anyone should have in an otherwise stellar video presentation.

Audio Quality

Billy Budd is presented with two lossless audio options, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and the typical LPCM 2.0 stereo fold down. Aside from one or two very minor balance issues, both of these tracks are exceptionally fine and wonderfully detailed. In an all-male cast, especially one where the bulk of the voicings are in the bass and baritone range, one has to be very, very careful not to muddy the waters as it were (and not to pun horribly, considering Billy Budd’s maritime setting). The DTS track especially offers sterling clarity with absolutely no murkiness at all in the lower registers, really rather remarkable. Sir Mark Elder conducts the London Philharmonic in a resplendently nuanced performance, and the orchestra sounds magnificent, perfectly placed throughout the surrounds, offering a gorgeous reproduction of Glyndebourne’s vaunted hall ambience. The soloists are exceptional, but really major kudos have to be given to Glyndebourne’s equally vaunted chorus, which is incredibly fulsome on the DTS track. Dynamic range is exceptional here, with the chorus’ sudden crescendi mid-phrase thrilling to hear. Occasionally soloists on the upper deck of Oram’s imposing unit set get just slightly buried in the mix, probably due to microphone placement, but otherwise this is a practically perfect aural feast.

Special Features and Extras

  • Introducing Billy Budd (1080i; 10:49) is a nice little featurette offering Grundage, Elder and various cast members talking about the production. Some early rehearsal footage is shown, which is interesting.
  • Designs on Billy Budd (1080i; 9:03) is a great piece on Christopher Oram’s fantastic production design, including a cool time lapse element showing the set being built.
  • Cast Gallery (1080i; 00:47)

Overall Score and Recommendation

This is evidently the first Billy Budd on Blu-ray, at least that I’ve been able to determine with a cursory internet search, and it’s wonderful news that this is such a fine production that one would be hard pressed to find a better account of Britten’s masterpiece even if there were other hi-def versions out there. The three principal cast members are exceptional, the orchestra and chorus are magnificent, and Oram’s unit set is simply amazing. The saving graces of Billy Budd are fully on display here and this disc is easily Highly recommended.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group