An Outstanding, Visceral Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten: Billy Budd. Soloists, The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Glyndebourne 10.8.2013 (RB)

Billy Budd-Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Billy Budd is arguably Britten’s greatest opera and one of the greatest operas of the 20th century. The themes and sexual politics of the opera are strikingly modern and were very daring for the time – when it was written, in 1951, homosexuality was illegal in the UK. In the libretto, written by E M Forster and Eric Crozier, Billy Budd, the handsome and guileless young sailor, falls into a tragic web of events created by two very different men. Claggart, the Master-at-Arms, is a sadist who is sexually attracted to Billy but is consumed with self-hatred and sets out to destroy the object of his affections. Captain Vere can see clearly what is going on and has the measure of Claggart but he proves too weak to intervene to save Billy from the noose. Whether this is because of the need to maintain military discipline and comply with the Articles of War or because of his own feelings for Billy or a mixture of both is never explained. The themes running through the opera are bullying, sexual sadism, male bonding, homoerotic love and Christian forgiveness and redemption.

The sets, lighting and costumes in Michael Grandage’s production are nothing short of magnificent. The action takes place in 1797 on board a British man-of-war and in the First Act we see the interior of the cavernous hull of the ship with vast wooden decks running across the length of the stage and masts running up to the ceiling. Daily life on board the ship is depicted vividly with sailors alternately sliding down or pulling on ropes and scrubbing the decks of the vessel. One can see light gleaming through windows creating a wonderful sense of space. At various points in the opera, the action shifts to Captain Vere’s cabin and we see the walls and windows of the cabin descend from the ceiling. Vere’s room is illuminated with low lighting and sparsely decorated with wooden chairs. At the end of the first Act, a false ceiling comes down and one can see the salt of the earth sailors below decks singing sea shanties with the scene illuminated by the glow of a lantern. At the beginning of Act 2, we see massive guns on deck and the orchestra’s percussionists are on stage wearing Red Coat uniforms.

The cast were exceptional throughout, both vocally and dramatically, and they gave absolutely riveting performances. Mark Padmore gave us some emotionally charged, high-impact singing in Vere’s opening Prologue. His voice soared effortlessly through Britten’s phrases, conveying the guilt and heartbreak of the character so much so that I could feel the hairs standing on the back of my neck – what an opening! Padmore’s diction and tone production were excellent and he gave us some beautifully sculpted phrases. In the closing Epilogue he showed excellent control of dynamics fading away to a whisper but still projecting to the back of the hall.

Jacques Imbrailo, reprising the role of Billy from the 2010 production, is a terrific actor and commands attention whenever he is on stage. He conveyed the innocence and boyish enthusiasm of Billy particularly in the ‘Billy Budd, King of the Birds’ scene. He has a rich, highly coloured baritone voice and he used it so wonderful effect in Billy’s aria in the Darbies: he conveyed the warmth of the character and breadth of humanity ably assisted by the LPO’s principal flautist. Brindley Sheratt had to depict one of the most unpleasant characters in the whole of opera. Melville originally saw Claggart as a malign character lacking any discernible motive in the Iago or Scarpia mould but Crozier and Britten added additional layers of complexity. Sheratt really took us into the heart of darkness in the aria, ‘Oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness’ with the self-loathing and sexual sadism of the character spilling out. He seemed to find just the right balance between menace and creepy seductiveness in the scenes where he induces Squeak and the Novice to spy and gather evidence about Billy.

The three main principals were given sterling support by the rest of the cast and by the Glyndebourne Chorus. David Soar’s Flint and Stephen Gadd’s Redburn offered robust and well executed singing. There was some very fine acting and singing from Peter Gijsbertsen as the Novice: when we first see him, his back is a bloody mess of welts from a recent flogging and he has to be carried across the stage. In the scenes with Claggart and Billy he produced some lyrical and expressively nuanced singing. Jeremy White gave us a humane and kindly Dansker and he invests the final Act 1 duet with Billy – where he warns him about Claggart – with a sense of urgency and foreboding. The Glyndebourne Chorus were excellent and we first see them scrubbing the decks and conveying a sense of the misery and drudgery below decks. There are nods towards Broadway in this opera and the beginning of the third scene in Act 1 had a distinct Broadway feel with the chorus giving us some lively and high voltage singing. We also see them watching Billy’s execution – which takes place off stage – and the wordless chorus which followed had a raw visceral emotional intensity.

I have to say that I have never heard this opera performed better and a large part of the reason for this is down to Andrew Davis’ handling of the LPO. The orchestral entries were razor sharp and the music was articulated with real precision. The balance was spot-on and the orchestral textures remained light and transparent. The big militaristic scene at the start of Act 2 was played with gusto with Davis doing an excellent job in keeping the assembled forces tight and sharp. Davis clearly has a wonderful grasp of this music and I have never heard the First Act in particular played in such an immediate and accessible way.

This was an outstanding production of Billy Budd. I gather from the programme notes that a handful of tickets remain. The best advice I can give readers is to scoop them up as quickly as possible.

Robert Beattie