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

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

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):