United Kingdom Prom 60. Britten, Billy Budd: (semi-staged) Soloists, Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis. Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.8.2013 (CC)
Jacques Imbrall: Billy Budd
Mark Padmore : Captain Vere
Brindlay Sherratt: John Claggart
David Soar: Mr Flint, Sailing Master
Stephen Gadd: Mr Redburn
Darren Jeffrey : Lieutenant Ratcliffe
Alasdair Elliott: Red Whiskers
John Moore: Donald
Jeremy White: Dansker
Peter Gijsbertsen: The Novice
Colin Judson: Squeak
Richard Mosley-Evans: Bosun
Dean Power: Maintop
Duncan Rock: Novice’s Friend
Michael Wallace: First Mate
Benjamin Cahn: Second Mate
Brendan Collins: Arthur Jones
Charlie Gill: Cabin Boy
Ian Rutherford: Stage Director
Just over a year ago, I reviewed English National Opera’s staging of one of Britten’s finest operas, Billy Budd, a work strikingly consistent and taut in its musical language. The ENO staging shied away from a staging in 1797; Ian Rutherford’s take was decidedly more in-period, if the costumes were to be believed. Set in Glyndebourne in the claustrophobic constraints of a ship’s interior, the rather more open spaces of the Albert Hall were counteracted by performances of awe-inspiring power from many of the cast members. Props were there, but minimal – a hammock, ropes, enough to give a sense of plot without over-egging the pudding. The back strip of the stage was used intelligently throughout.
So, if in production terms this was Budd-lite in comparison with the full Glyndebourne staging, musically this could hardly be a fuller, rounded and awe-inspiring performance. Coming very soon after the last Glyndebourne performance this summer, this Budd was as fresh as can be imagined. Personally I would not have picked Sir Andrew Davis as a conductor who could bolster up his forces to elemental terror or who could sustain darkness so chillingly, but it is good to have one’s expectations so thoroughly confounded on occasion, and this was one such. The orchestra was on top form, in a different league from the ENO forces, the brass in particular a shining beacon. The hyperalert playing at the onset of the second act was another fine example of the LPO’s excellence on this occasion. Did Sir Andrew, I wonder, point up the music at one point closely following this as Britten’s version of Verdi’s music for the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos?. It was certainly a new connection on me. He marshalled the huge choral forces easily and confidently. The Chorus, which plays such an important part in this opera, was simply superb. It has to master a large vista of emotions, from outrage to boisterous fun, and did so with aplomb yet always with musical discipline. The chorus’ repetitions of “O heave! heave away” during the opera’s first scene were masterly in their additive, mesmeric insistence, becoming decidedly more ominous as time went on; yet its contributions to the fun of the third scene was equally involving.
It was a privilege to experience Mark Padmore’s Vere. The Prologue finds him alone, as an old man reminiscing philosophically over his life experiences. Padmore’s take was intrinsically lyrical to the core, yet this was a lyricism that brooked little softening. His inner strength in the second act “Claggart, John Claggart, beware! I am not so easily deceived” was intensely believable. It was fitting that Vere had the last word – and the last walk. Padmore walked offstage to delicious, tension-drenched silence. Matching his affinity to role was Brindley Sherratt as a fine Claggart, strong to the core and with a voice of pinpoint focus. He could be eloquently beautiful – as when he waxes lyrical about “Plutarch – the Greeks and the Romans – their troubles and ours are the same”, and his “O beauty, O handsomeness, goodness!” was a highlight of an evening effectively riddled with highlights. When Vere and Claggart were together on stage, interacting, in act 2, the result was pure magic. Perhaps Sherratt’s climactic “Billy Budd, I accuse you …” was a little lacking in contrast to Padmore’s lines immediately prior to this, but his assumption remains an impressive achievement.
Alasdair Elliott, a Proms debut artist, was a wonderfully characterful Red Whiskers; and as character acting goes, Peter Gijsbertsen’s Novice was hard to beat. Better even than those was David Soar’s superbly projected Flint (Sailing Master). All parts were cast from strength – baritone Duncan Rock’s Novice’s Friend was particularly fine, with Darren Jeffrey’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe almost as noteworthy. Jeremy White gave us a Dansker that fully convinced as the old, wise sea hand and whose appearance as Billy awaits his death was truly mesmerising and touching; his whole assumption, in fact, was deeply moving. His precise pitching was particularly noteworthy. Colin Judson put in an admirably acted (both vocally and physically) Squeak.
So – what of Billy himself? Jacques Imbrallo is no stranger to the part, and has been critically lauded. He seemed to be the only singer who felt his way into the evening, decidedly quiet at the outset in comparison with the perfectly judged projection of his peers. His “Billy Budd! King of the birds 1” found him looking the part more than sounding it; yet later on, when he defended his loyalty to King and country, he found a lyricism that finally convinced. It seems a shame in a sense that the titular role was the weakest, but it was more than compensated for by Padmore’s unforgettable Vere.