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*** 1/2 BRITTEN: "Billy Budd" Thomas Hampson, Anthony Rolfe Johnson; Halle Orchestra, Kent Nagano, conductor (Erato)

June 28, 1998|Mark Swed

"Billy Budd" is an opera of important themes: good, evil and the hearts and ungovernable passions of man (literally in this case, since there are no women in it). But when he wrote it in 1951, Benjamin Britten was still a somewhat inexperienced if inspired and original opera composer. And the young composer slightly overextended himself in his attempts to be both grand in scale and also dig deep into personal psychology. In 1960, he refined, cut and focused "Billy Budd," creating a workable two acts out of the unwieldy original four. But he also lost some scope in the process.

This fine performance, elegantly conducted by Nagano, restores for the first time on recording the imperfect but in many ways magnificent original. Rolfe Johnson is a haunting "Starry" Vere, the captain torn between attraction to Billy and duty. He's an even more arrestingly impotent character in this expanded version. Hampson is a wonderfully lyrical Billy. Indeed it is the irresistible sensuality of Hampson's singing that illuminates the essence of the opera: Billy's beauty threatens the vulnerable captain, and thus must be destroyed before he can accept it, and come to know himself. Eric Halfvarson is the weak link; there is too little terror in his Claggart.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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