Billy Budd, Glyndebourne, August 2013Posted on 11 August 2013
A brilliant evening at the opera requires three things: a first rate opera, an illuminating production, and marvellous singing. Here we had all three.
Billy Budd, shown here in its two-act version, rather than the four-act original, is a stunning piece of theatre. The three main characters, Captain Vere, Billy, and Claggart, all embody in their own way aspects of the eponymous character in Britten’s most well-known opera Peter Grimes. Vere has the poetry, Billy the physicality and sheer hard work, and Claggart the dark destructive force. Between the three of them they carry this tragedy to its fateful conclusion.
At the start of the two-act version we see Captain Vere as a lonely figure, recalling his own confusion over the events we are about to witness, and Mark Padmore was a superbly strong and sympathetic Vere, his body language showing the aloofness that makes him unable to save Billy, and his voice compelling the crew’s admiration and their moniker ‘Starry Vere’.
As Billy, Jacques Imbrailo repeated his marvellous performance from three years ago when we first saw the claustrophobic intensity of this remarkable Michael Grandage production, its designs by Christopher Oram allowing us to see inside the ship’s interior as if observing through a fish-eye lens. Imbrailo’s Billy, sung with a lovely warm tone and perfect diction, showed an equally warm physicality in the way he stood and moved, and when volunteers are called to board the French ship his clambering down from above and leaping to the lower deck was like that of a stunt man.
At this point in the opera, Claggart has already tried to insinuate his false accusation against Billy, and Brindley Sherratt’s portrayal of the pure evil in this man brought tumultuously appreciative boos at the end. The purity of his vision was beautifully conveyed in the monologue O beauty, o handsomeness where his wonderful diction made me entirely unaware of any surtitles, and as he sang If love still lives … what hope is there in my own dark world for me? I was reminded of those in the past hundred years who have desired to achieve the purity of their vision through the deaths of others.
Supporting roles were sung with strength and conviction by the entire cast, and the chorus was magnificent. Jeremy White repeated his sympathetic and well-nuanced Dansker from 2010, Stephen Gadd made a commanding first lieutenant as Mr. Redburn, and David Soar showed great vocal power as Mr. Flint the sailing master. Alasdair Elliot was particularly notable as Red Whiskers, and Peter Gijsbertsen was an excellent novice, both vocally and in his body language, particularly at the end where the almost mutinous crew are ready to kill him.
The recent mutiny at the Nore informs this drama throughout, and the staging fully brings to life the time of the action. Excellent lighting by Paule Constable helps illustrate the threatening nature of characters and events, and Ian Rutherford has directed a superb revival of this gripping production.
It is worth noting that both Mark Padmore and Brindley Sherratt were making their role debuts, and a finer cast you could not hope to find. Conductor Andrew Davis produced wonderful deep growls from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and for me this production is the highlight of the 2013 Glyndebourne season. Utterly unmissable.
Performances continue until August 25, and there will be a cinema screening with the 2010 cast on August 19 — for details click here.