Sunday 11 August 2013

Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

Billy Budd, Glyndebourne 2013, photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Billy Budd, Glyndebourne 2013,
photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Michael Grandage's production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd debuted in 2010. Within Christopher Oram stylised but traditional sets, the production brilliantly evoked the tensions within a Napoleonic era ship. Now the production has returned revived by Ian Rutherford, with Jacques Imbrailo still in the title role, surrounded by an enormously strong ensemble including Mark Padmore, David Soar, Richard Mosley-Evans, John Moore, Peter Gijsbertsem, Colin Judson, Stephen Gadd, Darren Jeffery, Alasdair Elliott, Brendan Collins, Duncan Rock and Jeremy White, conducted by Andrew Davis. We saw the first night, 11 August 2013, and there wasn't a weak link in the casting; this is the sort of piece which Glyndebourne is able to do extremely well, generating a real sense of ensemble in the long rehearsal periods. But more than that, it mined the opera's full emotional power.

Whilst Grandage's production is traditional, its concerns were in fact akin to those of David Alden's radically different production for English National Opera. Both deliberately ignored the sense of the sea in Britten's score, and set the opera in an enclosed world in the middle of the ship. There, of course, they part company with Grandage and Oran offering us a very detailed reconstruction of life on a Napoleonic ship. Oran's accurate costumes combined with Grandage's detailed action for the sailors, into apparently presenting a realistic view of life on a Napoleonic era man of war. This was deceptive, of course, the set was in fact the hollowed out centre of the ship, stylised rather than realistic, and the action though detailed, would never have passed muster on a real man'o war; there was often the sense of action for the sake of it. But the top level of Oran's set lowered impressively so that for some of the scenes below decks, we got a real feeling of the pressure-cooker nature of life on board.

And Grandage's action, if you did not look in too much detail, had an important effect, it provided the backdrop to everyday life on the ship, the fabric of the lives of the individuals. Grandage's handling of the big moments was very confident, with the whole set articulated by the cast  (nearly 80 people on stage). The muster at the opening of Act 2, when the French ship is sighted, was really thrilling with the visual action matching Britten's music, giving a real sense of excitement and tension. The impressive thing about the production was that, whatever people were doing on stage, they gave the impression that they were doing it because they had to, it was part of their daily life. All this formed a backdrop for a very clear telling of the story. Billy Budd has a large cast, and its important that we know who everyone is quickly. Grandage, helped by Oram's costumes, ensured that we did.

I have to say that one day I hope to see a production which gives full reign to the homo-erotic charge between Claggart and Billy. Here Brindley Sherratt was a brilliantly severe, repressed Claggart. This was a thrilling account of the role and one which Sherratt's intelligence mitigated the sheer darkness of his voice and prevented the character from descending into caricature.

Mark Padmore and Jacques Imbrailo, Billy Budd, Glyndebourne 2013, Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Mark Padmore and Jacques Imbrailo, Billy Budd,
Glyndebourne 2013, Photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
As the object of his attentions, Jacques Imbrailo was radiant, wonderfully direct and open as Billy. Initially a very physical, immensely likeable fellow, this was a traditional interpretation of the role with Billy as the cynosure for all eyes but with a fearsome stutter. Imbrailo also gave us a very finely sung account of the role, his warm baritone voice shaping the music. His performance deepened in the second half and I have rarely heard Billy in the darbies so movingly and so powerfully sung, combined with a wonderful sense of stillness. This is one of those performances which will stay with me for a long, long time.

In the opening and closing scenes Mark Padmore's Vere was a remarkably distant, haunted figure, the voice on a thread of sound. This was the magical Padmore that we are familiar with from the recital hall. In many ways this was a daring performance, because Padmore's Vere was rather inward and conflicted, there was little that was open and direct. In the action scenes, Padmore was in brilliant voice, at times reminding me of Philip Langridge, who was a very fine Vere. There was a severity of Padmore, a sign that like Claggart, he too was repressed.  The scenes in which Vere testifies to the drumhead court were shocking in the severity of the way Padmore denied any ability to help Billy. Directors like to suggest Vere and Claggart as opposite sides of the same coin, but here it was done with subtlety and suggestion of character.

The rest of the cast were finely balanced with each man having his moment. Stephen Gadd was almost unrecognisable under a forest of red hair and beard (there was a sense that the production had gone a bit mad in the wig shop), but he gave his usually fully rounded performance, giving us the sense of a good, sensible man caught up in things. Gadd was ably abetted by Darren Jeffery as Lieutenant Ratcliffe and David Soar as Mr Flint.

Below decks, Peter Gijsbertsen made a very touching and trusting novice, easily manipulated by Claggart. Colin Judson was an aptly slimy squeak, and Duncan Rock was in strong form as the Novice's friend. Jeremy White gave a finely crafted and fully rounded performance as Dansker, one of those role which benefits from a fine singing actor.

In the pit, the London Philharmonic Orchestra were on strong form, giving us some thrilling playing and some fine subtle moments. Britten uses a big orchestra, and the big moments are loud but here were never less than expressive. Confidently in charge was Andrew Davis, giving a fine and thoughtful account of the score.

This was powerful revival with a strong emotional pull. The opera is in repertory at Glyndebourne until 25 August and the 2010 production will be broadcast in Cinemas this month. See the Glyndebourne website for further details.

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