Frankfurt is proving to be something of an outpost for British opera. The unveiling of Richard Jones's Billy Budd in 2007 was followed by The Rape of Lucretia in 2008, while 2010 has already seen new productions of Owen Wingrave and Thomas Adès's The Tempest. This apparent predisposition notwithstanding, the unflinching commitment of a fine cast under Paul Daniel here gave the Frankfurt audience little option but to be swept along by the intense drama of Britten's opera.
Jones's conception is predictably stylish, and the sheer stagey bravura of Antony MacDonald's sets is magnificent. There are not one, but two breathtaking coups de théâtre as the whole set—which is centred around a gymnasium—shifts left to reveal Vere's study up a flight of stairs on one side, and right to reveal the sailors' shower room (replete on first appearence with running hot water and a dozen naked men) and dormitory on the other. Nevertheless I had concerns regarding the basic premise of the production. The gymnasium itself immediately conjures up elements of military academies, boarding schools and, with an upper walkway around which the officers patrol menacingly, prisons. This ticks several boxes with regard to Jones's increasingly familiar predilection for the peculiarly British institutions of the mid twentieth century, further reflected in the jogging and jolly-hockey-sticks excercise routines of the crew in their prim sailor outfits.
The setting seems deliberately vague, but although the round windows at the rear initially suggest we might be onboard a large vessel, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case. Inevitably the lack of ship and sea results in moments of awkwardness: Vere rather unconvincingly stands atop some steps surveying what little view there is, the ominous mist of Act Two is represented by the building's electrics going on the blink, while the battle scene is turned into some sort of sports day event. Riding roughshod over the niceties of the prescribed setting is less a problem, however, than the fact that the opera is predicated on the heightened tensions of ship life. Sexual tensions might be no less palpable in any all-male institution, yet the very specific and potent fear of mutiny is missing, so the seriousness of Claggart's accusations seem incongruous. Without this background, Budd's fatal lashing out risks become a mere violence, and, as such, the very premise of the tragedy—the destruction of innocence under the suffocating pressure of injustice—is undermined.
While Jones's wider contextualisation of the drama is problematic, there's little to quibble with in the finely observed details of his direction, carried out by an outstanding international cast. At its head is the boyish, gangly Billy Budd of Peter Mattei. The tireless enthusiasm of his performance and the smooth consistency of his baritone were remarkable, but the way he portrayed the character's sudden break after the crime was shockingly vivid. His final monologue was deeply affecting, delivered, as if in a state of infantile regression, from within the safety of his locker. As his nemesis, Clive Bayley makes a brilliantly creepy Claggart. In sports jacket and slacks, in contrast to the uniforms of everyone else, he is an old-school, unenlightened military man, who hardly conceals all manner of evil below a veneer of chilly respectability. The way he patrols ominously in the shadows is deeply unsettling: a particularly effective touch. As Vere, John Daszak is part officer, part kindly headmaster, whom we see reading Plutarch in his study with an entourage of respectful pupils. The voice copes admirably with the role's tricky tessitura, and the character's essential nobility is well captured, as are the despair in the trial scene and pathos of the prologue and epilogue.
The rest of the cast is a successful mix of singers from Frankfurt Opera's excellent ensemble and elsewhere. Simon Bailey provided a youthful, suavely sung Mr. Redburn, while Magnus Baldvinsson exuded authority as Mr. Flint. Tim Mirfin was making an auspicious house debut as Ratcliffe, while Martin Mitteruntzer made a convincingly sycophantic Squeak, and Julian Prégardien captured the Novice's desperation well. Observing it all was the kind, wise Dansker of Frankfurt stalwart Carlos Krause, played as a lowly caretaker. The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester took a little while to hit their stride, but played vividly for Daniel, whose expertly paced reading missed none of the drama and oppression of Britten's score.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Wolfgang Runkel & Barbara Aumüller