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

A scene from <em>Billy Budd</em> [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith]
13 Aug 2013

Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

In their magnificent Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd, first seen in 2010 and revived here to mark Britten’s centenary anniversary, director Michael Grandage (revival director, Ian Rutherford) and designer Christopher Oram immerse us, quite literally, in the harsh realities of life aboard a late-eighteen-century man-’o-war: the uncompromisingly, and perhaps optimistically, named Indomitable.

Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: A scene from Billy Budd [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith]

 

We are dragged down into the deep, dark, timbered underbelly of the vessel — an airless, light-deprived pit, where human emotions are, ironically, simultaneously repressed and magnified. The stratified hierarchies of the ship’s upper decks which loom above this suffocating netherworld oddly invert the more tranquil orders of the theatre’s own wooden interior, the blanched hues and cruel undercurrents of this submerged, Hadean abyss an unsettling counterpoint to our own comforts and civilities.

It is a world of callous, merciless severity, but one alleviated by communal understanding, simple shared pleasures, and surprising acts of kindness amid the rough company. Billy’s selfless sharing of his ‘baccy’ to ease old Dansker’s despondent stoicism is later matched by the old sea-dog’s gentle ministrations to the imprisoned and condemned ‘Baby’. Similarly, as Billy’s friends skilfully tie the knots that will imminently break his neck, the painful tenderness of their actions contrasts heartbreakingly with the wretched ruthlessness of their superior officers.

Mark Padmore — View from the Bridge on Vimeo.

Grandage and Oram recreate wartime naval life — its routines, deprivations and brutalities — with detailed exactitude and veracity: ropes are bundled and pitched; riggings are pulled and tugged; seamen heave and haul, then seek meagre rest from their troubles and toils in paltry swinging hammocks. Movement director Tom Roden deserves much praise for the polished choreography: the swarming sailors go about their humdrum exertions with grace, spryly eluding the biting flick of a whip, the threatening thud of a baton; Billy Budd nimbly flings himself from balcony to deck, dangling from guard-rail and banister with gymnastic litheness; and the choral set-pieces are masterpieces of physical narrative. The crew assuage the gloom with a sprightly sea shanty which is toe-tappingly infectious in its expression of life’s humble joys. At the start of Act 2, the men’s excitement during the pursuit of the French ship is wonderfully complemented by the ceremonial scarlet of the musketeers and drummers (costume supervisor, Sarah Middleton; wig supervisor, Sheila Slaymaker) and the animation of the ship’s proud red flag in the blustering breeze, and the extinction of this flash of colour and hope by the returning hoary mist emphasises the mood of bitter disappointment and futility.

The large cast are uniformly excellent, individually defining their roles, collectively bonding in adversity. The ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, is supported by a highly competent and professional naval team: the crisp bellows of Darren Jeffery’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe are a clarion call to order and discipline, while Mr Flint (David Soar) and Mr Redburn (Stephen Gadd) prowl menacingly among the men, their commands glowing with potent intimidation. There are many welcome role reprisals from 2010, including Colin Judson’s squirming Squeak, Alasdair Elliott’s exuberant Red Whiskers and Richard Mosely-Evans’ Bosun. Jeremy White is once again a powerfully dignified Dansker, his voice full of wisdom, quiet honour and weary resignation. Peter Gjsbertsen, who sang Maintop in 2010, is here a movingly pathetic Novice, driven by a desperate fear to betray Billy, against instinct and love. Duncan Rock, another returnee from three years ago, is particularly note-worthy as the Novice’s Friend, singing with heartfelt warmth tinged with a levelling pragmatism. The several soloists from the Glyndebourne Chorus — Benjamin Cahn (Second Mate), Brendan Collins (Arthur Jones) and Michael Wallace (First Mate) — all acquit themselves very well.

Which brings us to the three central characters — two of whom are singing their roles for the first time — whose tortured triangle of emotional entanglements brings about such wasteful death and tragedy.

Brindley Sherratt is a disturbing John Claggart, his dark bass paradoxically beautiful, its lustrous sheen painfully at odds with the sentiments of his malicious utterances. This Master-at-Arms lurks and skulks among his underlings, tense and discreet, a ticking time-bomb unleashing flashes of malevolence which reveal the monstrous depths of his loathing for those whose fates he rules — a revulsion which, in his ‘Credo’, is turned upon his own degenerate soul. Sherratt’s bristling self-containment is eerily disconcerting: he presents his mendacious denouncement of Billy to his scornful Captain with an unsettling blend of subservience, humility and contempt.

Vere himself remains an elusive figure — withdrawn, reticent, absorbed by his erudite library but distanced from the men whose lives depend upon him. Indeed, in Mark Padmore’s highly original interpretation, Captain Vere is less a ‘Starry’ leader, a man of action inspiring loyal devotion from his seamen, than a philosophising recluse, introverted and evasive, angered by the unavoidable circumstances of war, and by his own reflections and motivations.

Padmore is characteristically thoughtful and dramatic in his delivery of the text, dispensing with surtitles in the self-scrutinising prologue and epilogue which frame the action aboard ship. When alone, Vere’s furious self-reproaches are astonishing vehement, his outburst during the Epilogue, ‘What have I done?’, a ferocious vocal punch. And while at the top Padmore’s tone is sometimes strained, the characterisation never wavers. The reserved self-possession which Vere displays when presenting his account to the drumhead court is shockingly cold; but such restraint does present some problems in terms of the coherence of the narrative. For, it is not clear why a man of such apparent moderation and self-control, educated and articulate, would stay silent, denying his ineloquent devotee a fair and balanced hearing. Why does this Vere arouse such affection among his men, and particularly from Billy? What is the nature of his feelings for the boy he calls ‘an angel’ — fatherly fondness, or something more? When his officers plead for his guidance, knowledge and wisdom, ‘Sir, we need you as always’, why does he refuse to save his protégée?

Grandage and Oram neglect not a detail of the practicalities of naval life, but do not venture far into the psychological complexities of Melville’s narrative, and the homosexual tensions of both the novella and Forster’s libretto are somewhat disregarded. Similarly, Paule Constable’s lighting is typically sensitive and atmospheric but essentially a visual complement, rather than an active element in the drama.

Melville’s ironic insinuations, Forster’s symbols and suggestions, and the musical inferences of the score are not really explored. Thus, Claggart’s ‘sickness’ — what Melville elusively termed ‘natural depravity’ — seems merely an inhuman ‘evil’; like Iago he is driven not by covetousness or passion, but because he perceives in another a ‘goodness’, one that he does not wish to possess (in either sense of the word) but which he must destroy because he recognises that ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly’. Padmore’s inscrutable Vere similarly offers few hints of any erotic undercurrents between the three men; the ‘foul word’ that the officers ‘scarcely dare speak’, is simply ‘mutiny’, the threat not within, insidious and ineradicable, but straightforward and easily oppressed by violent domination.

Reprising his 2010 Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo is absolutely splendid, his mature, strong voice complementing an honest openness and youthful physical charm. Billy’s cheerful blue shirt and fancy red neckerchief bring a splash of colour into the sailor’s grey lives, just as his breezy good humour and bright optimism alleviate the dour, dull days with sunny hope. Imbrailo’s phrasing is full of buoyancy and vigour, his tone pleasing and fresh, but not without the occasion touch of realistic roughness to bring credibility to the portrayal of innocence. It is immediately obvious why his fellow seamen hold him in such warm affection, and also why he so easily falls prey to Claggart’s Machiavellian deceptions. Awoken by the Novice, whose gleaming guineas are designed to tempt him to rebel, Billy’s faraway, fragmented remembrances of the deep fathoms into which his dream had lulled him are achingly prophetic. And, condemned to die, enchained in the darbies, his tender strains as the rays of moonlight stray through the porthole are touchingly pure, full of sweet sorrow.

Conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis has a good grasp of the narrative thrust of the score and makes much of its cinematic scene-painting: the shriek of wind and whistle, the thump of surging wave and rolling drum, the cries of suffering and of battle. If he never quite winds things up to a fever pitch of intensity, anguish and paranoia, this is an unfailingly controlled and clear reading. The saxophone’s roving dirge during the flogging of the Novice has a paradoxical and painful mellifluousness; and the recollection of the ‘interview chords’ as Billy accepts his fate —‘I’m contented’, ‘I’m strong, and I know it … and I’ll stay strong’ — powerfully underline the Amen of forgiveness evoked by the original plagal sequence.

The even rocking of the string lines which open the Prologue effectively conveys both the inexorable lapping of the ocean and the insistent urgings of Vere’s memory. In this regard, the masterstroke of the production comes in the final scene when Vere oversees Billy’s execution, not from a platform aloft but from amid his men, dressed as an old man: it is clear that what we have seen is a re-enactment of the past as experienced by a man who is plagued by regret, guilt and futile contrition.

This is a consummate production, exemplary in terms of its dramatic and musical consistency. There are still a few tickets available for performances on 15, 17 and 22 August. Don’t miss out.

Claire Seymour


Listen to Billy Budd podcast:

Cast and production information:

Captain Vere, Mark Padmore; Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo; Claggart, Brindley Sherratt; Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Darren Jeffery; Mr Flint, David Soar; Mr Redburn, Stephen Gadd; Red Whiskers, Alasdair Elliott; Dansker, Jeremy White; Squeak, Colin Judson; Novice, Peter Gijsbertsen; Novice’s Friend, Duncan Rock; Bosun, Richard Mosley-Evans; Donald, John Moore; First Mate, Michael Wallace; Second Mate, Benjamin Cahn; Maintop, Dean Power; Arthur Jones, Brendan Collins; Cabin Boy, Charlie Gill; Midshipmen, Sebastian Davies/ Tom Foreman/ William Gardner/ Quentin-Zach Martins/Will Roberts; Conductor, Andrew Davis; Director, Michael Grandage; Revival Director, Ian Rutherford; Designer, Christopher Oram; Lighting Designer, Paule Constable; Movement Director, Tom Roden; London Philharmonic Orchestra; The Glyndebourne Chorus. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday 10 August, 2013.

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):