Opera Scotland

Benjamin Britten

Billy Budd in Scotland

Posted 29 Nov 2016

Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd received its first Scottish performance on 28 March 1952, at the King's Theatre, Glasgow. The Covent Garden Opera were in Glasgow for two weeks as part of their then annual tour of major British cities. The production by Basil Coleman, in designs by John Piper, had launched the opera the previous year in London.

It was now conducted by Peter Gellhorn, with Edgar Evans as the Captain. With those two exceptions, the cast was identical to that of the premiere. While the absence of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears was no doubt regrettable, the rest of the cast was still quite spectacular. The young American baritone Theodor Uppman was a memorable Billy and the veteran South African bass Frederick Dalberg, a Bayreuth performer in previous years, made a fearsome Claggart.

The rest of the crew contained several names that would quickly become leading figures on the British operatic scene. These included the young Scottish tenor William McAlpine (Novice). The great baritone Sir Geraint Evans (Mr Flint) and bass Michael Langdon (Lt Ratcliffe) later had illustrious international careers that included performances as Claggart. The important group of singers from the Commonwealth at this period was represented by Australian John Cameron (Novice's Friend) and New Zealander Inia Te Wiata (Dansker).

Thirty-five years passed before the work was seen in a production by Scottish Opera. Graham Vick's staging, designed by Chris Dyer, was a co-production with Opera North, and opened at the Glasgow Theatre Royal in May 1987. It was conducted by John Mauceri and featured Philip Langridge as Captain Vere and John Tomlinson as Claggart. Billy was played by the young Canadian baritone Mark Tinkler. Other strong characterizations were given by Andrew Shore (Mr Flint), Peter Knapp (Lt Redburn), Stephen Richardson (Lt Ratcliffe) and Alasdair Elliott (Squeak).

This production was revived in 1992 with Richard Armstrong in the pit. The most memorable feature of the performances was the first interpretation of the title role by Simon Keenlyside, nearing the end of a period of regular appearances with the company. The Captain was played by both Nigel Robson and Anthony Roden, with Gidon Saks as Claggart. Alasdair Elliott returned as Squeak, while newcomers included Iain Paton (Novice), Gordon Sandison (Mr Flint), Eric Roberts (Lt Redburn) and David Gwynne (Dansker).


Stephen Fraser operascotland.org, the website for opera listings and performance history. 


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