- Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten, and: Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Two recent offerings from Opus Arte, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, may seem like strange bedfellows, but they provide a fascinating perspective on how British opera has changed over sixty years. Budd premiered in 1951, Anna Nicole in 2011. Both draw on products of American [End Page 163] culture, despite their many differences. The former adapts Hermann Melville’s 1924 novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, and the latter subjects the life of American celebrity Vickie Lynn Marshall (better known as Anna Nicole Smith) to operatic treatment.
The recording of Billy Budd is superlative. The Glyndebourne Festival’s 2010 production of Britten’s celebrated opera marks theater director Michael Grandage’s first foray into the opera world, and under his direction the entire cast delivers convincing, nuanced performances. Vocally and physically, baritone Jacques Imbrailo captures the youthful innocence of the title character, a quality somewhat lacking in Thomas Allen’s Billy in the 1988 English National Opera production (prior to this release, it was one of only two Billy Budd recordings on DVD). With his powerful bass voice, Phillip Ens gives a sinister, compelling portrayal of the malevolent master-at-arms, John Claggart, and as Captain Vere, tenor John Mark Ainsley embodies the opera’s conflicted protagonist.
The set design by Christopher Oram and lighting design by Paule Constable are particularly effective. Together, the two evoke the claustrophobic innards of the late eighteenth-century British man-ofwar on which Melville’s story of evil and innocence—adapted for the opera stage by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier—plays out. Conductor Mark Elder leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra and singers with assurance, offering a dramatically sensitive pacing of the opera. The sound quality of the recording is rich and clear, with options for stereo sound or DTS digital surround sound. The video direction is equally fine, striking just the right balance between wide-angle shots that reveal the thrilling full company numbers—such as the “Starry Vere” sequence in Act I and the opening sequence of Act II—and closer shots that capture some of the finer acting moments.
Two brief extras are included on the DVD. “Introducing Billy Budd” interweaves a loose synopsis of the opera with interviews with Elder, Grandage, Imbrailo, and Ainsley that provide insight into characters’ motivations. “Designs on Billy Budd” centers on the opera’s critically-acclaimed visual design, with commentary by Grandage, Oram, and Constable.
Anna Nicole is a far cry from Billy Budd, both musically and dramaturgically, and attests to the influence of musical theater on the operatic genre over the past half-century. With its unconventional subject matter, the opera recreates the strangely compelling voyeuristic lure of reality television. The opera premiered in February 2011 at the Royal Opera House (ROH). In keeping with the media frenzy surrounding the real Smith’s life, the production generated an enormous amount of popular and critical interest, and just over a week after the premiere BBC television broadcasted a recording of the performance.
Anna Nicole adopts a chronological approach in its rendering of Smith’s life. Over the course of seven scenes, the first act traces the early life of the heroine (sung with aplomb by Wagnerian soprano EvaMaria Westbroek). Despite misgivings by her mother (mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley), Smith strikes out ambitiously into the world, acquiring oversized breast implants in the quest to someday hook a rich client at the Houston “gentlemen’s club” where she works. The act culminates in her marriage to the octogenarian oil tycoon J. Marshall Howard II (tenor Alan Oke). In the nine scenes of the second act...