Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Billy Budd, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 22 June 2010

Glyndebourne Opera House

Captain Vere – John Mark Ainsley
Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo
Claggart – Paul Whelan
Mr Redburn – Iain Paterson
Mr Flint – Matthew Rose
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Darren Jeffery
Red Whiskers – Alasdair Elliott
Donald – John Moore
Dansker – Jeremy White
The Novice – Ben Johnson
Squeak – Colin Judson
Bosun – Richard Mosley-Evans

Michael Grandage (director)
Christopher Oram (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Tom Roden (movement)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

Glyndebourne’s first Billy Budd must be accounted a resounding success. (I have one principal reservation, which I shall leave to the end, but it is hardly the fault of Glyndebourne.) First and foremost are the extraordinary contributions of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder. I have heard the LPO on good form many times, but never more so than here. The Glyndebourne acoustic doubtless helped, but even so, richness and roundness of tone from the pit were first class. Woodwind solos, chattering or plangent, were superbly taken, whilst the deeply expressive cellos would have fitted right in to a top Continental string section. Elder’s command of the score never faltered, guiding light through the fog and chief dramatist at the climaxes. The broad sweep never eclipsed smaller detail, that ‘conflict of thirds’ (Arnold Whittall) from which the ‘Rights o’Man’ motif evolves properly at the centre of so much of the action, properly haunting, and properly generative. Echoes of Berg were stronger than I recall hearing previously too: not just Wozzeck but Lulu too. The Glyndebourne Chorus was on equally exceptional form; it is some time since I have heard such accomplished singing, full of body yet never fuzzy, in the opera house. The two principal London companies should look to their laurels.

Solo singing was of a high standard too. Paul Whelan, understudy to Phillip Ens, had nothing to fear from any comparisons he might have courted, for his Claggart was a more subtle interpretation than the part might have had right to expect. Musically and dramatically detailed, his interpretation truly made the words tell.  There was no stronger portrayal on stage. Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy was less bright-eyed than that of Simon Keenlyside for ENO, and certainly less acrobatic. There was, though, at least some of the time, a strong sense that this might be a plausible character: not an easy thing to accomplish. He can act – and he did; he can also sing handsomely – and he did. John Mark Ainsley probed the ambivalence of Vere, properly Pilate-like, for better or worse. There were moments in the second act when his tuning wandered, but he regained focus. Standing out amongst the other men were Jeremy White’s loyal, generous-hearted Dansker and Ben Johnson’s credibly-led Novice, once spirited, now broken.

Michael Grandage’s production takes the work pretty much at face value. It takes place on a ship at the appointed time. One can tell what is happening and why, without the distraction of production ‘features’ that fail to cohere. Christopher Oram’s set is mightily impressive, again doing just what is supposed to do and perhaps a little more besides. Paule Constable’s lighting was evocative indeed. I cannot say that any especial insight struck me from the production, but nor did anything irritate. The lack of eroticism, however, was surprising, to say the least. One has only to follow the words, let alone the music, to discern it, but little was on visual display. Had this been subordinated to another angle, I could have understood; as it was, I was left wondering: why so coy? We are not in the 1950s now, thank God.

So most, if not quite all, was well and good. And yet… There remains the problem of the work itself. Even when granted so strong a performance as this, the dramatic cracks cannot quite be papered over. Motivation remains abrupt, even at times obscure, unless it is all really about something else. And if it is, can we not bring that out at least a little more strongly? We need to know more about Claggart if he is to become interesting, or at least plausible. Do men really hero-worship their captain as these men do? If so, why? What I really cannot stomach is the heavy-handedness of the Christian symbolism, quite incompatible in form and content with what otherwise seem to be the libretto’s concerns. Vere’s Pilate act is bad enough, but the Christ of Billy Budd? It borders uninterestingly upon the blasphemous. As for the reference to the peace that passes understanding, the reference perhaps surpasses anything in The Rape of Lucretia.The constant references to goodness and beauty are little more than creepy. Ultimately, Britten’s music is stronger than Forster’s libretto deserves, yet does not emerge untainted.


Doundou Tchil said...

Love your new look ! Interesting comments, as usual, too. In the absence of much character motivation in this production, default falls to "simple" explanations like the Christianity, which doesn't sit well with what we know about Britten. Starry Vere isn't Everyman choosing between good and evil, and Billy's sexual allure is only part of a complex role. Sometimes i wonder if Billy is compelling because he's a blank mirror, but this production didn't go that deep.

Henry Holland said...

Love the new look.

Motivation remains abrupt, even at times obscure

Why does Verdi's Otello, reputedly a great leader of men (i.e. has insight in to how people tick), turn in to a jealous raging thug at the site of a handkerchief, produced by a guy he's stated he distrusts earlier on?

How can Rodolfo and Mimi declare their love after knowing each other for 15 minutes?

How can Siegfried, who as we've been reminded ad nauseum at that point is a great hero who slew the dragon and won Brunnhilde, be so stupid as to take a drink from people he's literally just met?

etc. The answer: it's opera and if everything was to be properly fleshed out, every opera would last as long as Stockhausen's Licht cycle.

Do men really hero-worship their captain as these men do?

Having grown up on military bases, I can say without hesitation: yes, they do. It's frightening how easy it is to whip men in to a frenzy and have them rally behind The Great Leader Who Will Lead Them To Glorious Victory.

Part of the problem is that the original version of this opera isn't really done any more. There's a crucial (and musically fine) 5 minute scene at the end of the old act 1 that I'm sure you've heard where Vere addresses the entire ship. His stirring words are what prompt that worship. It was cut because Pears couldn't sing it, but it removes a major bit of motivation in the process.

I hope this production was filmed for DVD release it's gotten rave reviews and it's one my very favorite operas (no female voices, what a blessed relief).

Mark Berry said...

Thank you both for your comments. I have to admit, Henry, you have a point when it comes to motivation. But I think that opera can sustain the illusion better than it does here. 'Tannhäuser', great though its merits may be, seems to suffer in a not wholly dissmilar way. It was not for nothing that Wagner told Cosima shortly before his death that he still owed the world a 'Tannhäuser'.

Which brings us to the issue of revision you mention. I have seen the score of the original version, but have never heard it. Kent Nagano recorded it, if I remember correctly. From what you say, it seems that it would make quite a difference.

I think there is a good chance the production will end up on DVD. It ought to transfer well. I imagine there will be a radio broadcast at some point too.

It is doubtless a sign of my own depravity, but give me 'Elektra', 'Rosenkavalier', or pretty much any top-voice-heavy Strauss, any day though...

Rowena Shepard said...

Mmm, looked on Whelan's site, the man looks very, very yummy! (I prefer my Claggarts young and darkly attractive, like he was in the book.)

Want to see it anyway. Hope there will be a dvd, I live too far to see it live.