- Billy Budd, opera, Op. 50: Revised version, 1961
Herman Melville's novella "Billy Budd" might seem at first glance an odd literary source for an opera, with its all-male cast of characters and its single shipbound location. But it was an inspired choice for Benjamin Britten, who collaborated with novelist E. M. Forster to create this unique 1951 masterpiece. Britten turned the story's constraints into advantages, finding a rich variety of characterization within the full range of masculine voices and realizing that the claustrophobic setting only enhances the drama's pressure-cooker mood. The opera's original recording, conducted by the composer himself, remains a classic, but this new release matches it on all counts. Conductor Richard Hickox has established himself as a Britten authority, with acclaimed recordings of the War Requiem and Peter Grimes already under his belt. His achievement with Billy Budd may be even finer; he drives the London Symphony to a gorgeous performance, whether portraying glistening, moonlit seascapes or the surging turbulence of naval battle. There's a nearly unbeatable cast assembled here too. Philip Langridge is the most significant interpreter today of the great tenor roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears, and here he brings an aristocratic bearing and a wide expressive range to the conflicted Captain Vere. Baritone Simon Keenlyside sings the title role beautifully, strongly suggesting Billy's personal magnetism and naïve grace, and bass John Tomlinson gives a chillingly cruel performance as the brutal Claggart. With more than a dozen other excellent soloists, a robust chorus, and superb sound, there's no question that this is now the Billy Budd to own.