- Albert Herring, chamber opera, Op. 39
- Owen Wingrave, opera, Op. 85
- Billy Budd, opera, Op. 50
- Peter Grimes, opera, Op. 33
Benjamin Britten's recordings of his own operas are definitive -- cutting out the interpretive middle man and going straight to the heart of every bar, every scene. For sure, there are better sounding, and in many cases better sung, recordings to be had, especially of the popular works like "Peter Grimes" and "Billy Budd"; but none of them are as vivid, as immediately engaging, or as illuminative as these. As recorded by Britten, these are living, breathing dramas delivered with such complete understanding that you never miss the sights of scenery and characters; they are right there, captured forever in sound. Volume one of Decca's Britten opera series includes both of the blockbusters mentioned above, the charming comedy "Albert Herring," and the rarely heard television opera "Owen Wingrave," all recorded between 1959 ("Grimes") and 1971 ("Wingrave"). The compact, bare-bones presentation omits all of the supporting information, including the librettos and any background information, and even packs the end of "Wingrave" and the beginning of "Billy Budd" together onto one disc (note: this is the original two-act version of "Billy Budd"). The loss of the texts would be deadly if it weren't for the remarkable clarity of the singing; it is possible to listen to any of these performances from start to finish while hardly missing a word. As a result, you are free to engage fully with the music while the text is laid in your lap. It's a giddy experience that might recalibrate your expectations of singers who all too often let the demands of music obscure the words. Not every moment is beautifully sung, and listeners who put a premium on that might prefer to find other recordings (although there aren't many choices for "Wingrave" and "Albert Herring"). But anyone looking to acquaint themselves with Britten's unique fusion of music and drama should start here with no reservations.