Billy Budd1962

Director: Peter Ustinov
Stars: Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Melvyn Douglas, Paul Rogers, John Neville
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 123 minutes

Perhaps no Benjamin Britten opera so forcefully explores the composer's recurring theme of the destruction of innocence as Billy Budd, adapted from the Herman Melville novella about an angelic midshipman who is fated to his demise when he clashes with the inscrutably evil Claggart. It's the character of Captain Vere who is the essence of any Billy Budd production (Britten originally wrote it for his lover and best interpreter, the velvet-voiced tenor Peter Pears), and this English National Opera staging from 1988 boasts the finest contemporary Vere, Philip Langridge, who creates a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a man torn between duty and honor. Thomas Allen's Billy seems too knowing, not the innocent he should be, but he sings with great beauty. Richard Van Allan's Claggart is evil incarnate, yet with enough shading in his singing and acting to hint at welcome ambiguities. David Atheron's conducting is, as befits this Britten specialist, skillfully done. This straightforward English National Opera production of a masterly music drama (in its original four-act version, by the way) is a most welcome addition to DVD, even if there are some caveats: the Dolby 5.1 sound could be more forceful, and the opening intro (by an unidentified narrator) promises a talk with librettist Eric Crozier "at the interval" that never materializes! Otherwise, this version of Billy Budd remains a vivid reminder that 20th century opera, at least in Britten's hands, could be thought-provoking and extremely entertaining. --Kevin Filipski

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