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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.

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