“Billy Budd”, Glyndebourne Festival Opera (Review)

Posted on August 11th, 2013

billy budd image richard hubert smith“This is not his trial, it is mine”, says Captain Fairfax Vere as he sees the inevitability of Billy Budd’s condemnation. “My heart’s broken, my life’s broken”, he concludes, and by having him bear witness to Billy’s execution as his older, tormented self, director Michael Grandage has him (Vere) effectively witnessing his own. Billy’s death is Vere’s “apotheosis”. Goodness is sacrificed to the eradication of evil. It is a final, heart-stopping touch in a production which, as is so often the case, has now fully marinated and come to fruition in this magnificent revival to mark “Britten 100”.

Everything about it has been sharpened and intensified and never before has the self-fulfilling prophecy of mutiny come closer to reality than in the boiling over of the crew’s anger and defiance in the wake of Billy’s hanging. The shipmates who have “the running of him” aloft are frozen in a tableau of anguished exhaustion as Britten turns shock into fury and Grandage makes brutally physical the grunting chorus of outrage. And just when you think that nothing can top this explosion of despair, Mark Padmore’s Vere delivers his searing confessional, echoing Billy’s words as he too embarks on his final journey.

The great thing about Padmore’s performance – his debut in the role – is the heroism implicit in his vocal delivery. It turns the part around when this authority is so commandingly realised in the singing. The voice has acquired more ballast now but not at the expense of clarity and purity. His respect for text and for the line that carries it is absolute but it is the way in which he nails Vere’s internal conflict between duty and intuition, head and heart, is hugely impressive. It’s the kind of singing-acting that looks you straight in the eye and demands attention. Marvelous.

He is, of course, playing with and against the immensely imposing Brindley Sherratt in his role debut as Claggart. Not before time, I say – this is a performance that has been waiting to happen and the wonder of it is that Sherratt never once “plays’ the villain but rather turns his desire for that which he can never be or have (there is, of course, a not so latent homoeroticism in him) – that is, Billy, beautiful inwardly and outwardly – and rather like Iago turns envy to hatred. Vocally Sherratt’s kinship with the tuba which shadows him is absolute and his great scena is stormingly irrational in its mix of lust and resentment.

Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy has also fleshed out as a characterisation and he, too, never draws attention to the obvious but rather builds on the truth of his lust for life, his coming of age, decency and sense of purpose. It’s a heartfelt performance which comes wonderfully into its own in his final soliloquy. Not only is it beautifully sung – shifts of colour and register meaningfully deployed – but it has an inspiring sense of contentment which is deeply affecting.

I must also mention the Novice of Peter Gijsbertsen – another instance of a performance born of a deeper conviction. His scenes with Billy and Claggart gained in significance from his believability. It was singing that came from somewhere.

As was the case with everyone on the stage. No going through the motions of being seamen but a very real sense of authenticity and purpose with everyone physically, emotionally, engaged. The  big set-pieces were thrillingly immediate, conductor Andrew Davis pulling the score up from great groundswells of string basses and giving it mobility through brilliantly articulate woodwinds and trumpets. The London Philharmonic Orchestra again proved what an asset they are to Glyndebourne and how exciting they sound in this perfect house where the balance between pit and stage is never an issue. The sensational welling up of “Blow her to Hilo”, trumpet-topped and with a testosterone-fueled power from the Glyndebourne Chorus so disproportionate to their numbers, pretty much took your scalp off.

A tremendous evening, then, and as the great hull of Christopher Oram’s terrific set began to recede carrying Vere to his and its final mooring I for one could momentarily believe that it might sail out of the stage dock doors and into the night.


Photo: Billy Budd  image Richard Hubert Smith
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Posted in Opera, Reviews


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