Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Vivid action & redemptive parable: Britten's Billy Budd returns to Covent Garden

Britten: Billy Budd - Jacques Imbrailo, Alasdair Elliot - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Billy Budd - Jacques Imbrailo, Alasdair Elliot - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Benjamin Britten Billy Budd; Jacques Imbrailo, Toby Spence, Brindley Sherratt, dir: Deborah Warner, cond: Ivor Bolton; Royal Opera House Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 April 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★½)
Britten's opera returns to Covent Garden in a vivid production which brings out the redemptive theme of the parable

Billy Budd is perhaps Benjamin Britten's grandest opera and it seems strange that it has been absent from the Royal Opera House for so long. But here it is again, thankfully (23 April 2019), in Deborah Warner's production which debuted at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2017 and has already travelled to Rome (the work making its debut in both places). Conductor Ivor Bolton, general music director of the Teatro Real, travelled with the production as did a number of the cast.

In many ways Billy Budd is the mirror image of Francis Poulenc's Carmelites, both works examining closed communities under stress (and Warner's production of Billy Budd heightened the religious imagery, thus bringing the two closer. And where Carmelites calls for a wide range of female voices, in Billy Budd there is a wide range of male ones (there are no female roles, just boy trebles). Here the Royal Opera had assembled a fine array of singing actors, with Toby Spence as Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd, Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, Clive Bayley as Dansker, Duncan Rock as Donald, Sam Furness as the Novice, David Soar as Mr Flint and Thomas Oliemans as Mr Redburn, plus of course the 60-strong Royal Opera Chorus.

Michael Levine's set was abstract, but very much brought the sea and ships into the theatre with its elaborate rigging, two full sails and swaying platforms. These latter could rise to create the sense of being below deck, most memorably at the end of Act One where we could see rank upon rank of hammocks (which were used by the chorus). In the above-decks scenes there was lots of pulling on ropes, running about and action (there were 30 actors in addition to the chorus), and at times I did wonder whether there was a little too much action as it was difficult to track the principals against such a complex background, but perhaps that was the idea.

In complete contrast, Vere's quarters were deliberately large and relatively luxurious (we first see him in his tin bath), and the more intimate scenes were austerely staged. Whilst the set suggested the late 18th century the costumes suggested the mid-20th and there were deliberate anachronisms (Claggart has glasses and smokes a cigarette). Nothing was pushed too far, so you could draw your own conclusions.

Whilst this was probably one of the least directly homosexual readings of the main plot that I have seen, Warner (along with costume designer  Chloe Oblensky) created a highly homoerotic setting with many of the chorus (and soloists) often stripping to the waist (and clearly a lot a gyms had been visited to good effect). More than that, it was a very physical production, with moments like the intimacy between Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) and Dansker (Clive Bayley) when Billy is locked up in Act Two, but equally intimate in a different way was the scene where Sam Furness' Novice tries to tempt Billy here the set and lighting gave a close focus on just the two men.

Britten: Billy Budd - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Billy Budd - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
What seems to have interested Warner most, though, is the opera's exploration of the idea of redemption, and it with the highlighting of religious imagery which created the most striking moments. So that when Toby Spence's Vere takes the news of his execution to Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) this is done on-stage, to the accompaniment of just Britten's astonishing sequence of chords, then at the end as Vere usher Billy below-deck via a trapdoor, Billy puts his hand on Vere's head in benediction. (Mark Pullinger in his review for Bachtrack.com detected far more religious imagery than I, and it is well worth reading his article).


Jacques Imbrailo made Billy personable and affable, yet not quite the simpleton that some interpretations bring into it, and his violent moments when he suffered from his stammer were truly shocking for the way they came out of nowhere. In a busy, ensemble opera Imbrailo kept Billy to the fore without dominating. And long scene in Act Two, 'Billy in the darbies' was simply mesmerising, made all the more moving for the scene's emotional clarity and lack of maudlin sentiment.

Britten: Billy Budd - Toby Spence - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Billy Budd - Toby Spence
Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Toby Spence's Vere was a strange, uptight man who seemed rather remote yet given to odd moments such as lying down and listening through the deck to the men singing below. Though loved by the men, he does not really know them and his failure to elucidate Claggart's dishonesty at Billy's trial is fatal. In the Epilogue and Prologue, Spence sang as the young Vere with the older version present on stage too, looking haunted and defeated. Spence was in superb voice, floating passages beautifully yet with the focused power to make the voice cut through in the ensembles. This was not the most poetic of performances of Vere, but it was a very focused and powerful one.

Brindley Sherratt's Claggart was fascinating, not as nasty as some his evil was wrapped up in a complex personality and only in his solo moments did his real coldness come over. This was a chilling performance, with Sherratt bringing out Claggart's obsession with Billy and the good/evil parallels, which were very apparent, chimed in with Warner's redemptive theme in the opera. This Claggart was wonderfully manipulative, and Sherratt even managed the difficult trick of making us interested in the character and seeing his faults.

The strength of casting meant that the all the smaller roles told significantly. Clive Bayley (who has himself sung Claggart, I think) made Dansker a fascinating mixture of sympathy and prickly anger, and Sam Furness brought the right degree of lithe, naivety and desperation into the role of the novice, with Alasdair Elliott and Christopher Gillett each wonderfully characterful as Squeak and Red Whiskers. Above deck, David Soar's Mr Flint, Thomas Oliemans' Mr Redburn and Peter Kellner's Lieutenant Ratcliffe sought to keep order and deal with their Captain's vagaries, striving to do the right thing.

In a very physical production, the chorus was on superb form filling out Britten's choruses in thrilling fashion whilst filling the stage with action. In the pit, Ivor Bolton ran a tight ship and whilst the big set scenes were thrilling, there was plenty of space for the voices and the more intimate moments told wonderfully.

Perhaps this was not the most poetic of productions, but it was one which made manifest the complexity and danger of life on an 18th century man o'war, and made Billy's story into a parable which transcended the specifics of time and place.

Ivor Bolton, Conductor
Deborah Warner, Director
Michael Levine, Set Designer
Chloe Obolensky, Costume Designer
Toby Spence, Captain Vere
Jacques Imbrailo, Billy Budd
Brindley Sherratt, John Claggart
Sam Furness, Novice
Christopher Gillett, Red Whiskers
Alasdair Elliott, Squeak
Alan Ewing, Bosun
Duncan Rock, Donald
Peter Kellner, Lieutenant Ratcliffe
Clive Bayley, Dansker
David Soar, Mr Flint
Thomas Oliemans, Mr Redburn
Dominic Sedgwick, Novice's Friend
Thomas Barnard, Arthur Jones
Konu Kim, Maintop
Ross Ramgobin, First Mate
Simon Wilding, Second Mate

Jean Kalman, Lighting Designer
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden

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