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1999, Barbican Hall, London, Billy Budd

Billy Budd

Click the photo for recording details of this performance


Composer: Benjamin Britten
Librettist: EM Forster and Eric Crozier after Herman Melville’s unfinished story
Venue and Dates: Barbican Hall, London (Concert performance, semi-staged
25th November 1999
Conductor: Richard Hickox
Billy Budd : Simon Keenlyside
Edward Fairfax Vere : Philip Langridge
Claggart : John Tomlinson
Mr. Redburn : Alan Opie
Mr. Flint : Matthew Best
Mr. Ratcliffe : Alan Ewing
Dansker : Clive Bayley
Red Whiskers : Francis Egerton
Donald : Quentin Hayes
Novice : Mark Padmore
Squeak: Richard Coxon
Maintop: Daniel Norman
Bosun : Timothy DuFore
First Mate : Christopher Keyte
Second Mate : Richard Whitehouse
Novice’s Friend / Arthur Jones : Roderick Williams
Cabin Boy : Alex Johnston
Tiffin Boys’ Choir
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra


Observer, 28th November 1999 (Fiona Maddocks)

Britten’s Billy Budd, superbly performed by the LSO and an outstanding cast, proved to be the flip side of The Beggar’s Opera. The preoccupations are similar, exposing the ambition and corruption of those in power, the suffering of those without it. The difference, quite apart from the obvious contrast in musical scale and ambition, is that Britten’s work burns with conscience, where The Beggar’s Opera has none.

The performance was semi-staged, with attention to detail and ingenious delineation, through costume, of the subtle class structures in this work. The officers wore white tie and tails, the lowlier Master At Arms a velvet smoking jacket, the crew casual attire. Entrances and exits were carefully staged, with Richard Hickox’s appropriately brass-railed podium daringly used as various bits of the man o’war. Apparently Hickox devised the movement, with input from the cast. Who needs directors?

John Tomlinson chilled the blood with his obsessive, creepy, bullying portrayal of Claggart. As Billy Budd, Simon Keenlyside shone with broken innocence. Philip Langridge, one of our finest singing actors, is as good a Captain Vere as you can get, unsurpassable in frail moral grandeur. Every member of the 16-strong cast, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, the London Symphony Chorus and, blazing throughout, the London Symphony Orchestra, deserve highest praise. Hickox conducted as though his life depended on it. A recording is due out next year. Forget The Beggar’s Opera. This was one for choosers.

A Grand Tragedy

Andrew Clements for the Guardian, 27th November 1999


Rating: *****

“The all-British cast was led by Simon Keenlyside’s infinitely touching portrayal of Billy himself, heart-stopping in his farewell to life…”

Worse things happen at sea

Edward Seckerson for the Independent, 1st December 1999

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Billy Budd, is that’s it’s impossible to imagine for even a second that you might actually be on dry land. The sea was something that Britten did supremely well. The feel, the threat, the lure of it. “Fathoms, down fathoms” his orchestra rolls and undulates. Oceanic swells from string basses and cellos pull the barlines out of shape, tuba and trombone glower like low cloud on the horizon, the harp catches whatever sunlight comes through, trumpet fanfares vapourise like so much spray.

And, of course, the virtue of a concert (or “semi-staged”, as was the case here) performance is that, installed as we were on the main deck of the great ship Barbican, there is no cover for the sound. The “infinite sea” was out there, open before us.

And with conductor Richard Hickox going for optimum impact at all times – his seafaring zeal sometimes exceeding the boundaries of a viable voice-to-orchestra ratio – the visceral impact of the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was considerable.

The thrill of the shanty “Blow her to Hilo” gradually rising from below decks to an overwhelming crescendo, Britten’s multi-layered voices breaking like cresting waves against the clean, bright sound of violins and high trumpets – as if to endorse Captain Vere’s idealism. Or the call to arms in Act 2, “This is our moment”, beating drums and hollering voices from all quarters, the English choral tradition cast to the last force-10 gale in the saltiest full-on singing this mass assemblage of men’s voices could muster. And that’s the other thing about this score: Britten finds many colours across the range of male voices. Many dark shades.

None darker, of course, than the craggy basso profundo in which the soul of the evil master at arms, Claggart, is entombed. John Tomlinson was all dungeon-black rhetoric and sinister insinuation, an incongruous charm inviting his “prey” to “come closer” into his confidence. The anger in his Iago-like credos was revealing. Billy was so plainly the object of his desire, the love that dare not speak its name, if only he could feel love, the everything he wanted to be but could not be. By contrast, Philip Langridge’s Vere, was goodness personified, but it was a goodness smothered by an unshakeable sense of duty. Duty before humanity at the moment that really mattered, the moment at which he could have saved Billy’s life. In just two words, “I cannot”, Langridge – the most truthful of artists, one whose every thought process you can actually follow – conveyed a broken man.

Simon Keenlyside was a fresh and wonderfully physical Billy. His body-language contributed greatly to the vocal performance in an evening – despite the concert setting – full of physicality. Officers in evening dress, seamen in nautical civvies, busily came and went: even the podium guard-rail came to suggest the prow of the vessel. Individuals emerged from among the motley crew: Mark Padmore’s Novice, Francis Egerton’s Red Whiskers, Richard Coxon’s Squeak, Clive Bayley’s Dansker.

But Britten’s great skill is in the ensemble. And the orchestra. It’s true that nothing can prepare you for the infinite succession of triads that accompany Vere – “the messenger of death” – to the condemned Billy like so many questions and answers. And it’s equally true that as Billy’s body plunges from the yard-arm, one’s heart will forever be in one’s throat as the music spirals upwards, the last remnant of Billy’s soul vanishing in a wisp of violin harmonics. That’s genius.

Telegraph, 30th November 1999 (Rupert Christiansen)

From the sublime to the ridiculous

There are occasions when I find Britten’s Billy Budd easy to resist: there’s something creepy about the sado-masochistic homoeroticism in E M Forster’s contribution to the libretto, something too cunningly contrived about the musical structure. Then I hear a performance such as the one given in the Barbican Hall and my reservations are blown away: suddenly, Billy Budd seems one of the composer’s supreme operatic masterpieces, as consummate in its theatrical craft as it is profound in its exploration of a terrible moral dilemma.

Much of the credit for this must go to Richard Hickox, who conducted the superb London Symphony Orchestra at white heat, giving full weight to the score’s grandeur without sacrificing its nervous volatility or brilliance.

But he also had the immeasurable advantage of a magnificent cast, acting out the drama on a narrow strip of platform in front of the orchestra, without scenery or proper costume. In other circumstances, the effect could have been embarrassing; here the acting was of a quality to make it electrifying.

The three principals could not be bettered. Simon Keenlyside was a heart-rending Budd, a part which allows him to display the combination of virility and sensitivity that makes him one of the world’s finest lyric baritones. John Tomlinson’s Claggart was chillingly underplayed and powerfully projected. Philip Langridge has long been absolute master of the complexities of the role of Captain Vere, but there was no hint of routine here, and his freshness of voice makes it incredible that he will celebrate his 60th birthday this month.

Picking out anyone from the wonderful supporting cast would be invidious, and I mention Roderick Williams (as the Novice’s Friend) only because I guess that one day soon he will make a fine Billy Budd himself. The men’s voices of the LSO Chorus made almost too magnificent a noise to convincingly represent the mutinous crew of a man-o’-war. It is good to know that this moving and enthralling performance will be recorded on the Chandos label.

The Times, 29th November 1999 (Rodney Milnes)

There’s scarcely such a thing as a straight concert performance any more. Covent Garden’s two-year closure and a series of high-powered concert promotions – notably by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera itself – have conspired to confirm this. No director was credited for Billy Budd last Thursday, but whoever it was had been busy. No one carried scores, everyone knew their roles, and rank was costume-coded, white tie for officers down to vests and trainers for seamen.

There was lively action at the front of the stage, people scrambled over the conductor’s podium, and some of those in smaller roles seemed to be auditioning for the National Theatre (of Brent). Whether Simon Keenlyside’s Budd lying down for a snooze in front of the cello section, Philip Langridge’s Captain Vere miming both wine-bibbing and his volume of Plutarch, or John Tomlinson’s Claggart spectacularly falling down dead and then having to get up and walk off the platform added anything to the performance it is hard to say. Budd’s tacky Tosca-style fall from view at the moment of hanging certainly subtracted from it. Why couldn’t they just stand and sing?

All of which said, this was a musical experience in a thousand, with Britten’s opera sung as well as we will ever hear it and wonderfully played by the LSO, from the genuinely pianissimo opening through an ear-splitting battle scene to an ecstatic apotheosis. Richard Hickox’s conducting was intensely dramatic, moving forward inexorably with not a whiff of false sentiment. The stunned silence of up to half a minute at the end before anyone dared applaud says all that needs to be said.

Langridge was on exceptionally strong form as Vere, fielding the authority, dynamic variety and sheer inventiveness for which he is treasured. Tomlinson, a force of nature before he even opens his mouth, made Claggart’s Credo simply terrifying, not least in its dangerous honesty. With the LSO on stage, Keenlyside had to sing out more than one would ideally have liked early on, but once at Billy in the Darbies he coloured his lines with the insight and subtlety of the young Fischer-Dieskau – if this was not truly great singing, then I am Kubla Khan.

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