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1992, Glasgow, Billy Budd

Billy Budd


Composer: Benjamin Britten
Librettist: EM Forster and Eric Crozier after Herman Melville’s unfinished story
Venue and Dates: Theatre Royal, Glasgow
19, 22, 25, 27 February 1992
Conductor: Richard Armstrong
Director of revival: Paul Maloney
Original Director: Graham Vick
Designer: Chris Dyer
Billy Budd : Simon Keenlyside
Edward Fairfax Vere : Nigel Robson
Claggart : Gidon Saks
Mr. Redburn : Eric Roberts
Mr. Flint : Gordon Sandison
Mr. Ratcliffe : David Mattinson
Red Whiskers : Alexander Morrison
Novice : Iain Paton
Donald : Quentin Hayes
Scottish Opera Chorus and Orchestra


Billy Budd, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Richard Fairman for The Financial Times, 21 February 1992

Unlike the hapless Captain Vere who leaves his crew becalmed and mutinous after trying to engage the enemy when they are out of range, Scottish Opera chose its moment well. The appointment of a new Music Director is always an important one and the timing on this occasion was particularly felicitous.

On the day when he was due to make his return to the company as a guest conductor in a revival of Billy Budd, Richard Armstrong was named as Music Director at Scottish opera with effect from July next year. It is an appointment that places experience before novelty. During his long tenure at Welsh National Opera, Armstrong built up an extensive and wide-ranging repertoire which should serve his new company well.

In short, he knows about being in charge of opera in general, and Billy Budd in particular, as this revival reminded us. If memory serves right, he is a less full-bloodied interpreter of Britten’s score now than he was at the time when he conducted it at Covent Garden, but the cumulative power of the opera was amasses scene by scene, and it is a special virtue in any conductor that he should allow so many of the words to be heard.

The chorus and orchestra supported him superbly. Whatever the present financial tribulations at Scottish Opera, Armstrong will be taking over a company in very reasonable artistic shape, as capable of sighting an operatic success and bringing it successfully to battle as any other in Britain at the moment.

If this Billy Budd never quite became an electric evening, it was nevertheless a performance true to Britten’s intentions and with a few pertinent human touches of its own. The production, originally by Graham Vick, dates from 1987, but has held together well as a company effort. There is a feeling of a real community on board ship, led by seasoned artists such as Eric Roberts’s Mr Redburn and Gordon Sandison’s Mr Flint, while younger singers like Iain Paton as the Novice and Quentin Hayes as Donald are also offered chances, well taken.

The three principles looked every inch their roles. The innocent eagerness, as well as the youth and energy of Billy Budd, were nicely caught by Simon Keenlyside, who managed to suggest better than any other singer I have seen in the role a naïve unawareness of the dangerous currents swirling around him. As Vere, Nigel Robson was particularly good in what one might call the “Pears” aspects of the role, withdrawn, bookish, refined.

Both sang well enough, though Keenlyside wants a little of cutting brightness to the tone, and the only potential disappointment of the evening was that the Claggart, Gidon Saks, was having to take things easy in vocal terms. When he is fully restored to health, he should make a terrifying Master-at-Arms, not least because he is a head taller than everyone else, a towering demon, whose revelation of his own “depravity” within wins for this character too an unexpected measure of sympathy.

All were believeable human beings, Indeed the productions only serious imposition is to have aged Vere on stage from time to timew, a silent observer of events. But perhaps this is understandable if Billy Budd is to be a classic tragedy in the Grecian mould, with Vere the tragic hero forced to condemn the innocent and live on in the knowledge of his own guilt. For Britten never quite gets him centre stage as he should.

Conrad Wilson for The Herald, 20 February 1992

Epic Performance

Psychodrama or sea symphony? Epic opera or private tragedy? There are more ways than one of performing Britten’s Billy Budd, and Richard Armstrong, Scottish Opera’s music director-elect, makes plain, that for him, it all revolves around Captain Vere.

Up to a point, no doubt, this is forced on him by Graham Vick’s production, which, as last night’s finely focused revival (by Paul Maloney) reminded us, goes so far as to give the Captain a dressing-gowned alter-ego, silently haunting the action as a symbol of conscience.

But one suspects that, even without the production to prompt him, Armstrong would have placed the musical emphasis on Vere anyway. Trapped between Billy and Claggart (Herman Melville’s Bright Angel and Lucifer) he holds the tension, and the outcome of the opera in his hands, especially in a portrayal as articulate as Nigel Robson’s.

Yet like every other contribution, large or small, to this teeming musical drama, played out within Chris Dyer’s claustrophobically crucible-like man-o’-war, its success depends on Armstrong’s ceaselessly vivid orchestral underpinning, on his command of the music’s ebb and flow, of incisive instrumental and choral tone, of the play of rhythm upon rhythm, timbre upon timbre, marvellously realised at all the key points in the unfolding of the story.

The tremendous reuption of the battle music and, later, the famous sequence of 34 common chords when Vere goes off to tell Billy of his death sentence, are just two examples of its excellence. There are many more.

The naturalness with which Armstrong conveys every detail speaks of loving familiarity with a score he has been conducting now for 20 years. Happily, he has an exceptionally gifted new cast to enable him to explore it fresh. Even with laryngitis, the Israeli baritone, Gidon Saks, proves a formidable Claggart, a dark, still, watchful presence, towering over the rest of the crew.

But the company is lucky too, to have recruited, in Simon Keenlyside, such a spontaneous, eager, and acrobatic Billy. Like Britten’s masterpiece itself, this is a performance with not a false note. The Herald’s drama critic, so unenthusiastic about opera in his column earlier this week, should see it and be converted.

Neil Mackay for The Guardian, 22 February 1992

On Wednesday morning, Richard Armstrong’s appointment as musical director of Scottish Opera from summer 1993 was announced. On Wednesday evening at Glasgow Theatre Royal, Armstrong conducted a superb revival of Britten’s Billy Budd and received a huge ovation from audience, singers and players. With this warm relationship already established, perhaps Armstrong will be the man to put Scottish Opera back on the artisitic map.

His pacing of Britten’s flawed and problematical all-male masterpiece showed not only that the work can still hold the stage after 40 years, but that it has uncomfortable moments of blazing genius unique even in this composer’s output.

Scottish Opera had for once secured that unheard of thing, an ideal acting-singing cast. Nigel Robson’s Captain Vere is smaller in stature than either Simon Keenlyside’s innocent body-builder of a Billy or Gidon Sak’s pasty, towering Claggart, yet his authority over both is never in doubt. All three are vocally excellent. All the words of E.M. Forster’s rendition of Melville’s parable are clear, whether we like them or not – and some are embarrassingly Victorian and mawkish.

However, Scottish Opera’s resident forces can rarely have sung and played better. All the pungent diatonic dissonance of Britten’s score is clearly audible in the orchestra, while the big choral moments have a surge of real power. Graham Vick’s 1987 production (all steel mast, pale light and flesh colours) has been restudied by Paul Maloney, who has turned the homoerotic screw on this already perverse story.

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