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

Das Rheingold, Opera North

Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas - which is saying something.

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.

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):