Billy Budd, Glyndebourne, May 2010

The power of evil to destroy good is an integral part of this opera, so a production and its performance must be partly judged with that in mind. This new production by Michael Grandage goes for a sense of claustrophobia inside the ship, darkly lit, with two levels above the deck that the sailors inhabit. I liked the set design by Christopher Oram with its curved edges at the front, as if we are viewing the whole scene through a giant peep hole. The final death of Billy is done off-stage, only the pulling of the rope being visible within the ship.

Jacques Imbrailo as Billy, photo by Alastair Muir

The music — and this is wonderfully powerful music by Britten — was brilliantly played by the London Philharmonic under the baton of Mark Elder. The part of Billy, the cheerfully trustworthy foundling whom everyone loves, was strongly sung by Jacques Imbrailo, who acted the part with a suitably ready optimism. His nemesis, Claggart was Phillip Ens, whom I last saw in the Ring at Covent Garden singing Fafner. He was surprisingly lyrical, giving an impression of Claggart as a more nuanced and less evil man than one normally associates with the role. In his monologue in the second scene of Act II when he sings “alas, alas, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it and suffers” it seemed he really regretted being the dark force he has become. The intellectual honesty and sad weakness of Captain Vere was brought out well by John Mark Ainsley, and Iain Paterson sang strongly as Mr. Redburn the First Lieutenant, as did Matthew Rose as Mr. Flint the Sailing Master. The cast worked well together, the chorus was terrific, and Jeremy White showed particular strength and sympathy as Dansker, the older sailor.

Volunteers with Billy, ready to fight the French, photo by Alastair Muir

The costumes by the designer, Christopher Oram were wonderfully drab, suiting Paule Constable’s sombre lighting, but with a flash of red for the marines who escort Billy to the yard arm. If you’ve never seen Billy Budd before then this production has a welcome conventionality that eschews unexpected imagery. It adumbrates the restrained power of a warship that has no immediate battle to fight, apart from the sighting of a French frigate that disappears into the mist as the wind drops. But I would have liked a greater sense of the open sea and the Christ-like aspect of Billy to emerge. Darkness is good, though I felt the shining light of Billy was dimmer than it needed to be, and the menace of Claggart could have been stronger. A greater contrast between good and evil might have left a more lasting impression, but it was a wonderful performance, with powerfully nuanced musical direction from Mark Elder in the orchestra pit.

Glyndebourne’s production of this remarkable opera, an opera having not a single female voice, is very welcome indeed, and performances continue until June 27.

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