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Billy Budd.

BENJAMIN BRITTEN

Decca: 014 3256

PETER GRIMES

BENJAMIN BRITTEN

Decca: 014 3261

This stellar BBC television production of Billy Budd represents public broadcasting at its best. Although considered a masterpiece today, it took several years for Billy Budd to win acceptance, and the BBC was partly responsible for the work's rehabilitation and future success.

The opera premiered at Covent Garden in 1951 in a four-act version, but then Britten revised the score in 1960, refashioning it in two acts for a radio production. This version in turn received its stage premiere at Covent Garden in 1964. Two years later, tins version was filmed and then telecast with a crackerjack ensemble led by conductor Charles Mackerras.

The performance features a young Peter Glossop as the guileless, innocent Billy Budd, Michael Langdon as the blackhearted master-at-arms, John Claggart, and Peter Pears as the damned-if-you-do-dainned-if-you-don't Captain Vere. Others in the cast include such stalwarts as John Shirley-Quirk, Bryan Drake, David Kelly, Robert Tear and Benjamin Luxon, most of whom went on to record the opera for Decca in 1967 with the composer conducting.

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Reportedly one of the most ambitious televised opera productions the BBC had ever undertaken, the care and expense paid off. On this new DVD, the black-and-white image is clear and detailed, and the recorded sound is remarkable for 1960s television. This is an indispensihle release for all Britten fans.

Shot in muted color, the historic BBC production of Peter Grimes, Britten's first operatic triumph, is conducted by the composer and stars tenor Peter Pears, for whom the title role was written. The production almost came to naught at the time since Britten firmly disapproved of the BBC's standard set up of putting the orchestra in one studio and connecting it through monitors to the singers in another. Producer John Culshaw resolved the situation when he suggested using the Snape Mailings, a principal venue for the Aldeburgh Festival founded by Britten, Pears and Eric Crozier, as a single studio for both orchestra and soloists. This Britten/Pears collaboration was finally preserved for history there in February, 1969.

The project is also of particular significance since this was apparently the last time Pears sang Grimes. The production also features Heather Harper as a compassionate and nurturing Ellen Orford and Bryan Drake as a relatively pale, characterless Balstrode, all in the somewhat dated and conventional staging by Joan Cross (Ellen Orford in the opera's 1945 premiere).

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Both these historic videos are part of a series of BBC productions on the Decca label called The Britten-Pears Collection. In addition to these two, current releases in the series include Britten's edition of Mozart's Idomeneo (Decca: 074 3258), starring Pears in the tide role, and a performance of Schubert's Die Winterreise and Britten folksong arrangements (Decca 074 3257). sung by Pears with Britten at the piano. Future releases will include Britten's Owen Wingrave, which the BBC commissioned for television.--NC
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Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2009
Words:488
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