It has taken me a long time to understand the appeal of Ian Bostridge. The voice is not classically beautiful, his grasp of style and language is variable, his tonal range narrow. In opera, one is always aware of his interpretative process. Roles are parsed rather than lived, analysed rather than owned. Too often, he seems transparent, hesitant, ambivalent. Yet these same qualities made his Captain Vere utterly compelling in the first of two concert performances of Billy Budd with Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra.
If Britten's score cries out for a full staging especially in the awkwardly weighted two-act version Bostridge flourishes on the concert platform, as liberated by stillness as most singers are by movement. Ardent and honest in his retrospective examination of the events of the summer of 1797, the classically educated, self-critical commander is, as the tragedy unfolds, as culpable as Claggart (Gidon Saks), as rule-bound as Redburn (Neal Davies), Ratcliffe (Matthew Rose) and Flint (Jonathan Lemalu), as fearful as Squeak (Andrew Tortise) and the Novice (Andrew Kennedy), and as tongue-tied as poor, beautiful, stammering Billy (Nathan Gunn). Radiant of voice and alert to the complexities of Vere's crisis, Bostridge's only error was in revealing a hatred of Claggart more visceral than the distaste in E M Forster's libretto.
Billy Budd is a curious work: cynical and romantic, both critical of and in thrall to militarism and machismo, a Grimes rewritten after Verdi's Otello, with Claggart as Iago (the references are blatant in Claggart's soliloquy), and Billy as a barely masculinised Desdemona. This was a lavish cast, with two further Billies (Roderick Williams and Mark Stone) cast in the lesser roles of Novice's Friend and Bosun, and vivid performances from Alasdair Elliott and Matthew Best as Red Whiskers and Dansker. A stronger trio of officers than Davies, Rose and Lemalu is unlikely to be found, or a finer Novice, to the extent that Gunn's sweet, guileless hero faded into the background.
So to Claggart: perverse, brutal, and, in a hierarchy predicated on deference and sacrifice, transgressively direct in his malevolent desires. Saks's voice has suffered for his art the top has clouded, the bottom coarsened but his performance was superb, with layer upon layer of back-story in each bruised, sadistic syllable.
The orchestral playing was excellent, with lyrical woodwind and terrifying timpani, the amateur chorus strong. Indeed, the only weak link was Harding, whose reading was all surface and special effects, with little sense of the moral silt beneath the bloodied waves or the dreams of heroism in the starry sky.
Taking time out from Mats Ek's Stockholm production of Orphe et Euridice, Anne Sofie von Otte r gave a typically eclectic recital of Christmas songs with pianist Bengt Forsberg and saxophonist Anders Paulsson at the Wigmore Hall this week.
Peter Cornelius rubbed shoulders with Joaquin Nin. Ccile Chaminade and Gounod cosied up to Britten and Quilter. Sibelius, Nordqvist and Lyapunov offered twinkling snow-scenes of carols and evergreens, while Bach's not-so-safely grazing sheep were subjected to the barbaric assault of Percy Grainger's Blithe Bells.
Sugary, spicy, and sung very nicely von Otter invests such care in every line she sings this was a heart attack on a plate, with added calories from the cocktail-lounge noodlings of Paulsson's soprano sax.
Awesome as the trio's artistry is, their programme at the Wigmore intensified my phobia of over-egged arrangements, most particularly Ich steh' an deiner Krippen hier (BWV 469), of which the best I can say is that Bach's gentle chorale is a remarkably durable crash-test dummy.
Further reading Britten's source, Herman Melville's 'Billy Budd, Foretopman' (Penguin Classics)