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.