08 Sep 2011
Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd
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Hermann Melville wrote a poem called “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century”:
Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.
The present Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Billy Budd (based on Melville’s novella) is the most gnostic production I’ve ever seen.
Gnosticism comprised several different doctrines, all of which Christianity found heretical.* One strand of gnostic thought described the earth as the creation of an ignorant demiurge ** named Ialdaboth—God, being wholly good, could have had nothing to do with such a botched thing as the physical universe. Another strand, the Manichean, described good and evil as equally matched, incapable of ever resolving their struggle for mastery. Both these strains are relevant to Billy Budd.
Christopher Oram, the designer of this production, set the action in the hold of an enormous ship: the hull stretches so far upward that there is scarcely a glimpse of light from above. This has the effect of making the ship all hulk and loom, a prison: near the beginning, when the seamen pull ropes diagonally over the whole expanse of the stage, we seem to be watching the rigging of a giant torture chamber. There are no sails visible anywhere: this makes the opera earthbound and airless, heavy, without any sense of vehicular form. In the 1966 film (with Mackerras and Pears) we are on deck for most of the action, and the emptiness of the sound stage behind the ship gives a strong feel of being lost on the infinite sea. Possibly this is a still better effect, but there is much to be said in favor of the ship-as-dungeon as well.
The Captain Vere is John Mark Ainsley, a most distinguished singer, whose every syllable is weighted beautifully—bel canto, bel parlare at once. Compared to a fiery Vere such as Philip Langridge (in the English National Opera DVD), Ainsley can seem fussy and ineffectful. But Vere, for all his reputation as a mighty warrior, is an extraordinarily impotent leader, unable to hunt down the French ship, able but unwilling to save Billy from death. Vere is a God too dainty to meddle with the events of the physical world. He ponders and anguishes but does not act; indeed the whole of this past-tense drama takes place in Vere’s memory—there is a finely judged moment in this production where Vere appears, during the riot after Billy’s execution, in his bathrobe, as if he’s already detaching himself from the action, moving back into the distant future of the opera’s frame.
God is powerless, and so is the devil. Phillip Ens, the Claggart of this production, turns in one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen: one expects a Claggart to be a thug and a monster, like Michael Langdon in the 1966 film, or at least a black-voiced Hagen, like the bass who created the role, Frederick Dalberg, but Ens creates an intense effect of evil through finesse and even a sort of gentleness. He is left breathless by Billy’s beauty, and you hear his erotic excitement almost everywhere: when he sings, in his great soliloquy, “I will destroy you,” he is clearly in a state of elation. Like Vere, however, Claggart can achieve nothing: his scheme to make Squeak vex Billy beyond endurance fails; his scheme to make the novice incriminate Billy as a mutineer fails; his scheme to report Billy’s “crimes” to Vere leads to Claggart’s own death. If Starry Vere is the God of the opera, made vain through his extreme detachment, Claggart is a Satan made vain through his helplessness to understand that virtue can exist. And yet, in the production, only Claggart seems a being capable of love—it’s a sadist’s love, but love nonetheless. That is why I find Ens’s Claggart so disturbing.
The only person who can act is Billy himself, and the only action he can perform is to kill Claggart, in a manner that leads to his own death—he is hanged for striking his superior officer. This is the Manichean aspect of Melville’s tale: virtue and vice cancel each other out, leaving only—what?—some post-ethical exhaustion? Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy is clear and incisive: his voice isn’t colorful, but the performance is moving. He has a way of turning ensembles into star turns, especially in the scene where the sailors first describe Starry Vere: he stands center stage, facing the audience, as if he were the lead actor in a drama—a calling-attention to theatre that I found appropriate in this histrionically self-conscious production.
All of the singing is excellent—in fact, this production is nearly faultless except for Mark Elder’s conducting, somewhat subdued, calculating, without flair. Exercise of rational control is usually a fine thing when conducting Britten, but Billy Budd is unusual its in opportunities for abandon: the interlude before Billy’s great final aria, the bestial cries of sailors on the brink of mutiny after Billy’s death—these are occasions not for good taste but some great shriek from one of the favorite gods of the librettist, E. M. Forster: Dionysus.
*Editor’s Note: “Gnosticism is a heresy which is made up of a diverse set of beliefs. It is the teaching based on the idea of gnosis (a Koine Greek word meaning ‘secret knowledge’), or knowledge of transcendence arrived at by way of internal, intuitive means. While Gnosticism thus relies on personal religious experience as its primary authority, early ‘Christian’ Gnostics did adopt their own versions of authoritative Scriptures, such as those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.” Gnosticism in Theopedia.
** Editor’s Note: From the Greek meaning the “craftsman”, which was used by Plato as the divine being who created the material world. The Gnostics considered Demiurge inferior to the supreme and unknowable God. See Demiurge in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).