Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

San Jose’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.

Fine Traviata Completes SDO Season

On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.

The Exterminating Angel: compulsive repetitions and re-enactments

Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”

Dutch National Opera revives deliciously dark satire A Dog’s Heart

Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.

María José Moreno lights up the Israeli Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor

I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.

Cinderella Enchants Phoenix

At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.

LA Opera’s Young Artist Program Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.

Extravagant Line-up 2017-18 at Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany

The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.

Gerhaher and Bartoli take over Baden-Baden’s Festspielhaus

The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.

Mahler Symphony no 8 : Jurowski, LPO, Royal Festival Hall, London

Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.

Rameau's Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques: a charming French-UK collaboration at the RCM

Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.

St Matthew Passion: Armonico Consort and Ian Bostridge

Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.

Pop Art with Abdellah Lasri in Berliner Staatsoper’s marvelous La bohème

Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.

New opera Caliban banal and wearisome

Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.

Two rarities from the Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall

A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.

Enchanting Tales at L A Opera

On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.

Ermonela Jaho in a stunning Butterfly at Covent Garden

Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.

Brave but flawed world premiere: Fortress Europe in Amsterdam

Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.

New Sussex Opera: A Village Romeo and Juliet

To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.

La voix humaine: Opera Holland Park at the Royal Albert Hall

Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd [Photo by Alastair Muir]
22 May 2010

Imbrailo stars as Billy Budd in Glyndebourne

Star born through stutter? It’s immediately obvious that Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy Budd at Glyndebourne is an extraordinary portrayal. His stammer is more expressive than speech.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Vere: John Mark Ainsley; Budd: Jacques Imbrailo; Dansker: Jeremy White; Claggart: Phillip Ens; 1st Mate: Michael Wallace; 2nd Mate: John-Own Miley-Read; Mr. Flint: Matthew Rose; Bosun: Richard Mosly-Evans; Donald: John Moore; Maintop: Peter Gijbertsen; Novice: Ben Johnson; Squeak: Colin Judson; Mr. Redburn: Iain Paterson; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Darren Jeffery; Red Whiskers: Alasdair Elliott; Arthur Jones: Toby Girling; Novice’s Friend: Duncan Rock; Cabin Boy: Sam Honeywood; Midshipmen: Freddie Benedict, Alastair Dixon, Adam Lord, Oascal Tohouri, Joseph Wakeling. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Mark Elder. Director: Michael Grandage. Designer: Christopher Oram. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Movement Director: Tom Roden. Glyndebourne Festival, Sussex. 20 May 2010.

Above: Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd

All photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival

 

The cannons don’t get to shoot the Frenchies, Vere cannot resolve his conflicts, but inarticulate Billy overcomes huge obstacles and gets things done. He pays the price for inadvertently killing Claggart, but no-one intervenes. Captain Vere’s paralyzed by conscience, trapped in the fogs of scruple. Billy, though, is instinctive, physical, direct. Imbrailo lives the part in his body. No makeup can turn his face red so quickly, no costume can create the tense, twisted coil of his frame.

Imbrailo’s Billy is musically astute, as stammer is integral to Britten’s music. The mutiny, in Billy Budd, is in the music. So echoes of Billy’s stammer burst out in recurrent staccato in the orchestra, disruptive protests against the rigidity of naval life. The sailors don’t mutiny, but Billy’s stammer comes to affect the rhythms in other voices, even Claggart’s. Like Billy, Britten expresses himself in abstract sound, rather than relying on words alone. Orchestration as protagonist. In Billy Budd, Britten shows why he didn’t need to write symphonies.

Billy_Budd230.pngPhillip Ens as Claggart

Significantly, in this new production directed by Michael Grandage, what stands out most in Billy’s star aria, “Through the port comes moonshine astray” isn’t the usual lyrical magic but the phrase “I’m strong, and I know it, and I’ll stay strong!” Imbrailo’s “Beauty” isn’t a passive “Baby” but an assertive force of life.

Yet central to the whole opera is Captain Vere’s dilemma. He’s spent a lifetime trying to understand what Billy meant. What is “the love that passes understanding”? In this production, Vere recedes almost into the background. No “Starry Vere” here, fixed on a more rarefied intellectual plane, thinking of Scylla and Charybdis.Vere is tormented because he is a man who thinks.

Instead, this Vere is one of the boys. He doesn’t even wear a hat when he’s with the other officers. In the scene where Billy is hanged, he’s seen as an old man in a dressing gown, as still as a statue among the teeming crowd of sailors. Grandage is making a valid point, but this neuters Vere’s position. In this scene, Vere is still Captain, still capable of action, hamstrung as he is by his quandary. John Mark Ainsley sings beautifully, as he always does, but this production doesn’t make full use of his potential.

If Vere’s pivotal role is underplayed, Claggart, in this production, is developed unusually well. Philip Ens makes Claggart twitch with sexual tension. Like the mists that trap the ship, and the haze that shrouds the stage, this Claggart oozes poison so pervasive that just hearing Ens makes one feel unclean — he’s a great actor, and his voice twists and elides in a sinister way. How did this Claggart come to be who he is? This portrait of warped sexuality is almost too awful to contemplate.

This is an extremely dark production, in all ways. Definitely not a cheery sailor story! Christopher Oram’s set is claustrophobic. We’re inside the bowels of the ship, not on deck, and certainly not in the foretop, where Billy feels free. You can almost smell the fetid air, and feel the cramped, damp chaos. Psychologically, this is astute, but becomes oppressive in itself.

Billy_Budd090.pngJacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd (foreground centre).

The transfer scene, where Billy sings “Farewell to the Rights of Man” might have sounded more poignant if we’d “seen” the bright hope of the other ship in some way. Later, soldiers in brilliant red and white uniforms appear. They’re a delight to the eyes, but distract from the grimness of what’s happening. The real brightness in this opera is Billy, and his transfiguration. The set is also not flexible, despite intelligent use of lighting (Paule Constable), and works less well after the First Act. Also, the protracted tying of the noose within sight of the condemned man seemed excessive. The music at this point is so amazing, that we should be listening, not watching.

This was Mark Elder’s first Billy Budd. He conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra so the strong undercurrents of Britten’s music flowed well. In a production as dark as this, though, more sharpness of attack would have captured the edginess in the music, but Elder understood the recurrent “stammers” well. Dulled, pounding thrusts, as instinctive and direct as Billy’s stutter.

Billy_Budd433.pngJohn Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd and Phillip Ens as Claggart

“Rum, sodomy and the lash” don’t really fit in with Glyndebourne’s elegant, summertime ambiance, so it is no surprise that it’s taken 60 years to become part of the Festival. But it’s a measure of Glyndebourne’s artistic integrity that this particularly brutal production is done at all. This Billy Budd will be revived many times. The theatre at Glyndebourne is small, but the Festival reaches out all over the world, to a much bigger audience through broadcasts and DVD releases. Relatively few may attend in person, but the potential is huge, for Glyndebourne’s artistic standards are extremely high.

Hopefully, if they film this Billy Budd, they’ll do it with Jacques Imbrailo, who is so good that his star is very definitely in the ascendant.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):