A Billy Budd for the Twenty-First Century

ItalyItaly Britten, Billy Budd: Soloists, Orchestra, Chorus and Boys Choir of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma / James Conlon (conductor), Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome, 15.5.2018. (RP)

Toby Spence (Captain Vere) in Rome Opera’s Billy Budd © Yasuko Kageyama

Billy Budd – Phillip Addis
Edward Fairfax Vere – Toby Spence
John Claggart – John Relyea
Mr. Redburn – Thomas Oliemans
Mr. Flint – Zachary Altman
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – David Shipley
Red Whiskers – Christopher Lemmings
Donald – Jonathan Michie
Dansker – Stephen Richardson
Novice – Keith Jameson
Novice’s Friend – Johnny Herford
Squeak – Matthew O’Neill
Bosun – Francesco Salvadori
First Mate – Timofei Baranov
Second Mate – Andrii Ganchuk
Maintop – Domingo Pellicola
Arthur Jones – Antonio Pannunzio
A Sailor – Lorenzo Grante
Voice – Gabriele D’Orazio

Director – Deborah Warner
Set Designer – Michael Levine
Costume Designer – Chloe Obolensky
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman
Choreographer – Kim Brandstrup
Chorus Master – Roberto Gabbiani

As the curtain fell for the last time after the final performance of Billy Budd in the Rome Opera run, cheers were heard from the stage. A moment before, all eyes, including those of the orchestra, cast and chorus, had been on conductor James Conlon, who deflected the adulation as best he could. He had conducted a brilliant performance but, as he well appreciated, the stellar cast, the Rome Opera’s superb chorus and orchestra and a powerful production had something to do with it.

Entering the house, mist enveloped not only the stage where an old man sat holding a book, but the entire theater as well. Captain Vere entered for the Prologue and few minutes later you were aboard the HMS Indomitable. The stage was one vast expanse of ship deck, without a whiff of the romance of the high seas.

Above deck all was modern, stark and brutal; uniformed thugs kept order with clubs. The crew were virtually slaves. In the ship’s berth it was the eighteenth century where hammocks hung like butterfly chrysalises bathed in a softer light. There the crew could refresh themselves with water, find solace in camaraderie and escape in sleep.

In Captain Vere’s cabin, also of the modern world, civility and justice reigned but no mercy. The brig where Billy spent his final hours, however, was of the earlier era, so there compassion and humanity could be found.

Simple as it was, the set made for dramatic, effective scene changes. The mass of ropes could instantly be transformed into billowing sails and the stage raised or lowered to reveal the other decks. When set changes were required, the crew removed props and furniture in stylized movements. All combined to make the juxtapositions of time and space seamless.

The captain and his officers, except for Claggart, were all nice enough chaps, but skittish over the possibility of mutiny. The rules were the rules, no exceptions to be made. After Billy Budd’s execution, the crew raged against the ship’s officers for the injustice they had just witnessed, and only brute force could beat them into submission. It was powerful stuff.

Director Deborah Warner wrote in the program that Billy Budd was a multilayered parable of good and evil, but that she didn’t think it was necessarily a Christian one. Britten and his librettists couldn’t have made the religious themes clearer and, despite her protests, so did she.

Billy Budd was portrayed as a lamb worthy to be slain, with his pale skin glistening under soft white light. When Dansker paid him a final visit, bringing a cup of grog and a piece of biscuit, the religious overtones were clear. Billy, with his hands tied behind his back, nudged his friend with his head, just as a lamb does its mother. For some that might have been sensual, but to me it was of the sacred.

The sexual overtones in this production were subtle, but to a twenty-first-century audience they hardly need to be highlighted. In an all-male environment, where power is absolute, sexual violence is the norm. Claggart’s instant awareness of the danger posed by Billy Budd’s beauty and innocence needed no explanation; that the protection afforded his snitches, first Squeak and then the Novice, might entail sexual services goes without saying. It might not have been so in 1951 when the opera premiered, but times have changed.

Phillip Addis was a superb Billy Budd. There was a cockiness to him that was without guile, and his singing had that same quality. His voice was virile, free and open. He climbed eagerly to his death, and Warner had the sense not to spoil the moment with the snap of the rope and a dangling body.

John Claggart is malevolence personified, and John Relyea portrayed him accordingly. Why search for goodness in the man when there is none to be had? As with Addis, Relyea was at ease with his character, which evidenced itself in his singing. His voice glistened like wet granite, the low notes gravelly and menacing.

For ambivalence of character, one looked to the Captain Vere of Toby Spence. A man in his youthful prime, he would clearly have rather been in England hunting, but he was a captain in the Royal Navy; his Vere was never more at ease than when offering his officers a glass of wine. He was conflicted over Billy Budd’s fate, even believing in his innocence, but that could not rouse him to action. Spence’s elegant tenor captured all of those nuances in tones that were at times anguished, but never strained, and always beautiful.

It was a strong cast, but some performances and scenes stood out. Keith Jameson’s Novice was one, his back bloodied by the twenty lashes, crawling across the floor, urged on by his friend, portrayed by Johnny Herford. Stephen Richardson’s Dansker was the most humane character on the ship; the one who nicknamed the young man Baby on account of his innocence. Their scenes together were touching, with warmth and kindness emanating from his solid form and warm bass voice.

The men of the Rome Opera chorus were impressive. In the opening chorus, ‘O heave! O heave away, heave!’, they sang of life at sea, battered by waves and the lash, while below decks they sang to relax. Their finest moment was in Act II, when every repeat of ‘This is our moment’ rang out in glorious sound as they prepared to attack the French ship sighted off in the distance. Their final groans after Billy Budd’s execution were earthy and primeval.

The sounds than came from the pit were no less impressive, especially the rousing music that Britten composed for the brass which resounded throughout the hall.

For the Epilogue the old man returned to the stage, seated and silent as before. Vere had not aged a day. I often muse to myself that a work is only a true classic once a director deems it timeless and feels it is ripe for a revamp. That day has come for Billy Budd.

Rick Perdian

Leave a Comment