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

Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2016

Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.

Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne

Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.

The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf

Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.

San Diego Opera Presents a Tragic Madama Butterfly

On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.

Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde

New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.

San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride

In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Roméo et Juliette: Dutch National Opera and Ballet seal merger with leaden Berlioz

Choral symphony, oratorio, symphonic poem — Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette does not fit into any mould. It has the potential to work as an opera-ballet, but incoherent storytelling and uninspired conducting undermined this production.

Donizetti : Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House

When Kasper Holten took the precaution of pre-warning ticket-holders that the Royal Opera House’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor featured scene portraying ‘sexual acts’ and ‘violence’, one assumed that he was aiming to avert a re-run of the jeering and hectoring that accompanied last season’s Guillaume Tell. He even went so far as to offer concerned patrons a refund.

Five Reviews of Regina at Maryland Opera Studio

These are five very different reviews by students at the University of Maryland on its Opera Studio production of Regina — an interesting, informative and entertaining read . . .

Three Cheers for the English Touring Opera

‘Remember me, the one who is Pia;/ Siena made me, Maremma undid me.’ The speaker is Pia de’ Tolomei. She appears in a brief episode of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio V, 130-136) which was the source for Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei - by way of Bartolomeo Sestini’s verse-novella of 1825.

Andriessen's De Materie at the Park Avenue Armory

"The large measure of formalism which forms the basis of De Materie does not in itself offer any guarantee that the work will be beautiful," says Dutch composer Louis Andriessen of his four-movement opera.

Falstaff Makes a Big Splash in Phoenix

On April 1, 2016, Arizona Opera presented Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) in Phoenix. Although Boito based most of his libretto on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, he used material from Henry IV as well. Verdi wrote the music when he was close to the age of eighty. He was concerned about his ability at that advanced age, but he was immensely pleased with Boito’s text and decided to compose his second comedy, despite the fact that his first, Un giorno di regno, had not been successful.

Svadba in San Francisco

The brand new SF Opera Lab opened last month with artist William Kentridge’s staged Schubert Winterreise. Its second production just now, Svadba-Wedding — an a cappella opera for six female voices — unabashedly exposes the space in a different, non-theatrical configuration.

Benvenuto Cellini in Rome

One may think of Tosca as the most Roman of all operas, after all it has been performed at the Teatro Costanzi (Rome’s opera house) well over a thousand times since 1900. Though equally, maybe even more Roman is Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini that has had only a dozen or so performances in Rome since 1838.

Handel : Elpidia - Opera Settecento

Roll up! A new opera by Handel is to be performed, L’Elpidia overo li rivali generosi. It is based upon a libretto by Apostolo Zeno with music by Leonardo Vinci - excepting a couple of arias by Giuseppe Orlandini and, additionally, two from Antonio Lotti’s Teofane (which the star bass, Giuseppe Maria Boschi , on bringing with him from the Dresden production of 1719).

Roberto Devereux in Genova

Radvanovsky in New York, Devia in Genoa — Donizetti queens are indeed in the news! Just now in Genoa Mariella Devia was the Elizabeth I for her beloved Roberto Devereux in a new trilogy of Donizetti queens (Maria Stuarda and Anne Bolena) directed by baritone Alfonso Antoniozzi.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Royal Opera

‘All men become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.’ ‘Is that clever?’ ‘It is perfectly phrased!’

Mahler’s Third, Concertgebouw

Evolving in Mahler’s Third: Dudamel and L.A. Philharmonic’s impressive adaption to the Concertgebouw

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Herman Melville
26 Jun 2012

Billy Budd, ENO

Billy Budd, foretopman — and self-styled ‘King of the Birds’ — may yearn for premonition to captain of the mizzen top, but there few spirits that fly afloat or soar in David Alden’s dark, oppressive new production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Billy Budd: Benedict Nelson; Captain Vere: Kim Begley; Claggart: Matthew Rose; Mr Redburn: Jonathan Summers; Mr Flint: Darren Jeffery; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Henry Waddington; Red Whiskers: Michael Colvin; Donald Duncan: Rock; Dansker: Gwynne Howell; Novice: Nicky Spence; Squeak: Daniel Norman; Bosun: Andrew Rupp; The Novice’s Friend: Marcus Farnsworth; First Mate: Oliver Dunn; Second Mate: Gerard Collett; Maintop: Jonathan Stoughton. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: David Alden. Designer: Paul Steinberg. Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Movement Director: Maxine Braham. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 18th June 2012.

Above: Herman Melville

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

 

Indeed, we might start with what Alden’s reading of the opera is not. It is not a naturalist depiction of sea-faring life at a particular historical moment of naval conflict; nor is it an exploration of the psychological and emotional effects of the constraints and isolation on board a naval vessel in time of war. Crozier’s and Forster’s painstaking research into naval history — echoed in the surfeit of realistic detail exhibited in many productions of the work — is here eschewed in favour of a more universal time and setting (with nods towards modernism and beyond).

In fact, there is little even to suggest that we are at sea: the black leather trenchcoats sported by the officers and the sailors’ shapeless boiler suits are suggestive of an early-twentieth century fascist military and an industrial dystopia respectively, and the men cower beside a stark, steel edifice — more dystopian skyscraper than belly of a ship. Vere is worshipped by his crew, with naïve patriotic fervour, for his ability to blast the ‘Frenchies’ from the waters; but, clad in a debonair white suit and hunched over his philosophy books in his white tubular-shaped cabin, which resembles a futuristic office, he hardly convinces as a skilful naval strategist and veteran man-of-action.

Neither is Alden’s production really a classic Miltonic conflict, pitching the forces of good and evil. For this Billy, while exuberant and innocent, is not really a shining beacon of innocence and naivety: boisterous and prone to brawl, he does not quite rise to the heroic stature which would inspire his crewmates to insurgency in the moments following his death.

Moreover, while Claggart’s viciousness is clearly fed by his sexual desire for Billy — signalled, in case we had missed it, by his caressing of Billy’s scarlet neckerchief, which he clutches to his groin as he contemplates how he will annihilate this embodiment of beauty, handsomeness and goodness) — even the homosexual subtext of the opera (which draws upon the undefined homoerotic sub-currents latent in Melville’s text) is played down. For surely Vere is also disturbed and damaged by his love for Billy, a love which leads him to condemn Billy to death and himself to eternal remorse. And, while Forster rescued Vere, and his passion, in an Epilogue which transmutes Billy’s benediction, ‘God bless Starry Vere’, into an epiphanic Christian redemption, Alden avoids any crucifixion imagery during Billy’s hanging and brings the drama to a bleak close, the frail, elderly Vere juxtaposed with a blunt image of the brutal events he oversaw in a tableau which fuses the desolate present with the heartless past.

So, shunning both realism and the narrative equivocation which pervades both Melville’s novella and Britten’s score, what does Alden present us with? Not a ‘concept’ perhaps, but rather the depiction of a single mood - claustrophobic oppression — and the physical and emotional fear it engenders in both victim and persecutor.

This repressive ambience is forcefully generated by Paul Steinberg’s fore-shortened stage which forces the men into suffocating physical proximity where lashing violence is permanently on the point of erupting. And it is enhanced by lighting designer Adam Silverman’s dramatic oppositions of prevailing black obscurity and dazzling flashes of illumination.

Most forcefully, though, it is conveyed through the painfully slow movements of the massed seamen as they carry out their duties under the shadow of police baton and yard-arm gallows. Movement Director Maxine Braham ignores the huge rhythmic surges in Britten’s score which intimate both the powerful motions of the sea and the aching repressed emotions within the ship, in favour of severely constrained, stylised choreography: inch-by-inch the men haul a rope or scour the deck, the movements microscopic and quasi-ritualistic. At times this is effective: the injustice and horror of the final assault upon the mutinous crew by a truncheon-wielding militia is heightened by the cinematic slow-motion. Elsewhere, stage action and score seem incongruously at odds, as in the opening scene when the sailor’s propelling cry, ‘O heave’ — so suggestive of the muscular strength which shipboard life physically demands and of the emotional energy which must simultaneously be repressed — is answered visually by near stagnation.

As Vere, Kim Begley took a little while to warm up, and the slight tension in his voice during the Prologue did not help win sympathy for the Captain, who in this production often seems weak, even abhorrent, in his leadership of ‘The Indomitable’. But Begley got into his stride in Act 2: his physical portrayal of Vere’s mental agony during the trial scene was deeply affecting and the anguish of the closing Epilogue was finely portrayed, the slight dryness in the voice suggesting the waning of life and spirit. Benedict Nelson’s Billy was physically buoyant and nimble, freely waving his limbs in boyish exuberance, and shaking his flowing curls, in striking contrast to the rigid restraint of all those around him. But he lacked a similar sturdiness in the voice, and struggled at times to cut through the texture in his numbers with the chorus. However, ‘Billy in the Darbies’ was sweet and mellow, one of the opera’s few moments of intimacy.

Matthew Rose’s Claggart was fittingly satanic; called upon to oversee the arrival of three newly press-ganged recruits, he climbed ponderously and ominously from the belly of the ship like Hades rising from Tartarus. Poised, with rigid self-control, Rose’s dark bass chilled; the force of Claggart’s malignity was disturbingly expressed, as he communicated what Forster (in ‘What I Believe’) called the ‘something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance’.

All of the smaller roles were well executed. Jonathan Summers was an authoritarian Mr Redburn, immediately establishing his authority through voice and manner; Darren Jeffery as Mr Flint and Henry Waddington as Lieutenant Ratcliffe were similarly secure, projecting well. As the old sea dog, Dansker, Gwynne Howell excelled: he tenderly conveyed a weary wisdom and a true compassion — the latter a welcome touch of humanity in this community characterised by mercilessness. Nicky Spence’s Novice dramatically brought the fear and suffering shared but unvoiced by others into the open; he expressively shaped his vocal lines to expose the shame and self-pity of the flogged sailor. But, a minor point perhaps, visually he seemed much too advanced in years for a raw recruit whose lack of stoicism and self-control seem to suggest youthful immaturity and vulnerability.

Edward Gardner brought these competent parts together into an even more impressive whole; he truly understands Britten’s orchestrations and knows how to sharpen the dramatic characterisation through clarity of instrumental colour. Thus, the lyrical swoons of the saxophone deepened the sorrow of the Novice’s dirge and, when recalled at the close of Claggart’s aria of confession and avowal, indicated the master-at-arm’s unshakable hold over the young boy. Gleaming trumpet fanfares added a resonance of warfare and suggested Billy’s bright optimism; piercing piccolo squeals enhanced the emotional tension.

The large choral scenes were superb. Gardner whipped up a musical and military maelstrom during the pursuit of the French frigate which melodramatically opens Act 2, while subduing his forces in the singing of the sea shanties to achieve textual clarity and rhythmic buoyancy.

Overall, Alden’s reading is an interesting one, but lacking in something which lies at the heart of both Melville and Britten: ambiguity. Melville deliberately cultivated an air of inconclusiveness in both content and form, declaring, ‘Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges’. Thus, the mists which literally spare the French ship from destruction and metaphorically cloud Vere’s vision, are never lifted. This production is just a bit too unequivocal and clear-cut.

Claire Seymour

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):