Classical & Opera: The Halle Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano

The Halle Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano, gives concert performanc es of the original four-act version of Britten's Billy Budd in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall on 27 & 29 May at 7.30pm
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The Independent Culture
Benjamin Britten and classic American literature. Discuss. Well, perhaps there isn't space, but whilst Britten's later treatment of Henry James's story Owen Wingrave plays at Glyndebourne, this week the Halle offers the opportunity to hear the composer's earlier operatic setting of Hermann Melville's Billy Budd. Britten haggled for a long time with his librettists Eric Crozier and E M Forster before they came up with a text to his liking. He had planned Budd as a two-act work, yet it eventually emerged in four acts. But, at the premiere in 1951, three intervals seemed to disrupt the narrative flow and nine years later, Britten produced a revised two- act version, which has subsequently been the one performed by most opera companies.

But should a composer's second thoughts about his piece be adhered to or is it equally valid to uphold the first version? Perhaps if the initial version hasn't been deliberately destroyed then both are open to scrutiny. In the case of Billy Budd, as with Verdi's Don Carlos, there is perhaps a definite case to to made out for both editions. Indeed, Verdi's epic scale and the marrying of public and private worlds is emulated by Britten in Budd. Yet that's not the only previous operatic model he turns to. The opera's architechtonics and skilful juxtaposition of leitmotif, especially in the four-act original, parallel those of Berg in his Lulu. Plus, again in the original, the character of Captain Vere is fleshed out with far more psychological depth than in the revision.

Which version of Billy Budd is superior is an issue Brittenites will no doubt go on debating for some time. Whichever, for these two Halle performances, to be recorded for eventual release by Erato, an all-star international cast has been assembled, featuring American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson as Captain Vere and Eric Halfvarson as Claggart, with choral forces for this all-male voiced opera coming from the the Halle Choir and Manchester Boy's Choir.

EYE ON THE NEW

Erich Korngold's prodigiousness is said to have equalled Mozart's. A Korngold Centenary concert on Thursday includes his precocious Op.15 Piano Quartet, plus a selection of German and Hollywood songs performed by mezzo soprano Anne Sophie von Otter

Wigmore Hall, Wigmore Street, London W1 (0171-935 2141) 29 May, 7.30pm

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