Despite its great success, Peter Grimes was no pleasant experience for the Britten. The première at Sadler’s Wells was plagued by infighting and thoroughly exhausted the young composer. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that his next two operas were in his trademark “chamber opera” scoring, no longer requiring the financial backing or the venues provided by London’s large opera houses, allowing him to retreat to Glyndebourne and the company of friends. However, in 1951 he was tempted back to the grand opera stage (Covent Garden) by Hermann Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd.

John Chest (Billy Budd) © Marcus Lieberenz
John Chest (Billy Budd)
© Marcus Lieberenz

The incredible thing about Billy Budd is that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the large cast and orchestra, it is far more claustrophobic than The Rape of Lucretia or Albert Herring, the two operas which precede it. It’s a fascinating psychological exploration of men’s behaviour in enclosed, overcrowded conditions, starved of any female presence.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin’s co-production with English National Opera is for me somewhat problematic. The sense of confinement is greatly heightened by the ambiguous setting, something akin to a concentration camp, which emphasises the easily forgotten fact that many of the shipmates have been pressed against their will. The first chorus is a burdened drone of “oh heave”, the groaning of a faceless mass oppressed (or perhaps simply bored) by labour and this new setting works well here. However, below decks “We’re off to Samoa” is full of joy and comradeship and seems out of place. A ship is indeed a cramped space, but there’s the freedom of being on the open sea combined with it, and the prospect of land; a concentration camp is much bleaker, which is supported by neither music nor libretto.

One of the best features of this production is the characterisation of the main characters. John Chest embodies the young Billy’s naivety, while the heightening of Claggart’s homosexual desires give his bullying of Billy a motive which usually seems unexplained. Captain Vere, whose doubts over his own actions frame the entire opera, is also a character who often fails to elicit sympathy from the audience dramatically, even though it’s musically clear that this should be the case. Burkhard Ulrich’s performance was so plagued by physical uncertainty in the crucial moments of the second act that there was no doubt that Vere felt truly unable to do what he felt was right, and defected to an external authority, in this case the word of law.

Deutsche Oper's Billy Budd © Marcus Lieberenz
Deutsche Oper's Billy Budd
© Marcus Lieberenz

Vocally, Chest’s Budd was excellent. The young baritone’s voice has all the youthful vigour and lyricism for this character and the role couldn’t fit better if it had been written for him. As Claggart, Gidon Saks is as sadistic as one could imagine, with a powerful voice and dominating stage presence. Sadly, this strength makes his death following a single blow from Billy completely unbelievable, to the point where it becomes comedic and elicited laughter from the audience. Of the many other solo roles, all excellently sung, special mention must go to Thomas Blondelle, whose portrayal of the Novice was stellar, with a clear and lyrical tenor voice.

Britten’s principal tenor roles will remain problematic, simply because Peter Pears’ voice was so unique. Burkhard Ulrich made no attempt to imitate Pears’ tone, but his attention to diction is reminiscent of the late British tenor, giving his delivery an immediacy and drama which is vital here. For me, his voice is not wholly at home in this repertoire, with Wagnerian power standing in for the clarity someone like Ian Bostridge brings to Britten, but his performance was nonetheless enjoyable.

The Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, conducted by Donald Runnicles, played with fine nuance throughout the evening. Of particular note was the broad colour palette of the strings, from the heavy opening chorus, through the sprightly sea shanties to the delicate whiteness of the famous “interview chords”. The all-male chorus, far from a small role in this opera, was also excellent, with a quality of blend and diction which so many opera choruses fail to achieve.

Billy Budd is a fantastic work, and a Britten opera which has justly seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. However, it is an opera (like so many others) that lives from its production, and needs a good staging it to support its somewhat fragile dramatic arch. Though musically very satisfying, this production provides dramatic satisfaction only in moments.