For their first ever production of Britten's ‘other' grand opera about the sea, Billy Budd in its revised two act version of 1960, Glyndebourne have pulled out all the stops. The set, beautifully designed by Christopher Oram, takes us onboard an authentic-looking man o'war of the Napoleonic period with structural elements that slide back and forwards, drop in from the fly tower and provide a constantly changing visual perspective on events as the narrative unfolds. Of the sea itself there is no sign – we are definitely in interior spaces onboard The Indomitable – and never more so when a giant array of wooden beams is lowered over the crew to place them ‘below decks', atmospherically lit (full credit to Paule Constable) from above and behind to create the light and dark that is a permanent feature at the heart of this opera. But the sea is ever present in the music and director Michael Grandage's choreography of his all-male cast evokes vividly the alternation of humdrum life aboard, ship and crew becalmed in mist, and sudden alarms and excursions as the wind picks up and the chase for a French opposing vessel is on, with ropes flying, sails flapping and onstage drummers strategically placed at several levels on deck as dramatic and musical excitement mounts. The ensemble playing at such moments is breathtaking and the visual impression complete: this Billy Budd is a piece of total music theatre at its most magnificent.
And in keeping with those sentiments, the first two performance elements to highlight are ensembles: the (augmented) Glyndebourne male chorus, who sang with a precision, a variety of dynamic and tone and an overall intensity of concentration that I have never previously encountered in this opera, and the LPO under the inspired direction of Sir Mark Elder, who were on blazing form. Billy Budd has the largest orchestra of any opera by Britten but for Elder they responded to each and every nuance of expression as one: this was a passionate but infinitely tenderly phrased account of the score, as viscerally exciting in all the big moments as it was sparse and haunting in the moments of private grief. So to orchestra and chorus go the plaudits for revealing Britten's score ('it will never be a popular success but I am very glad I have written it' as Britten told Imogen Holst two years after the original premiere) to be the masterpiece that it undoubtedly is. The sea shanties and the admonitory ditties about the dangers posed by the French were particularly fine.
But if the structural underpinning – orchestra, chorus and production – were all so wonderful, what about the characters at the centre of this operatic tragedy? Here, once again, Glyndebourne's casting proved highly astute. If great things were expected of John Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere, he certainly did not disappoint. But for me the revelations of the evening were the Billy Budd of Jacques Imbrailo and the Claggart of Phillip Ens. Between them – innocent victim, malevolent plotter and tortured soul whose head has to rule his heart – they provided a musical and dramatic experience that made total sense of Britten's musical imagination and revealed it to be incredibly surefooted.
The presence of microphones on Tuesday night may have concentrated performers' minds wonderfully, but from the moment he leapt onstage, Imbrailo personified the lithe, athletic, open, fresh seaman that Billy Budd is supposed to be ('one in a million' as Claggart mutters malevolently). The voice has an open baritonal ring, with a nobility of tone, that informed Imbrailo's whole performance – and energetic as his singing was, so the force that he exerted to overcome the stammer made his eventual fatal blow to Claggart's head all the more believable. As Imbrailo played him, this Billy Budd truly was an innocent force of nature – refusing to believe anything bad of his fellow man, exuberantly loving life aboard, and naively but totally confident of his likely promotion to be foreman of the mizzen top when his summons to Captain Vere's cabin presages anything but that. This was a gloriously and naturally sung Billy Budd that will remain in the mind.
At the other end of the good/bad spectrum, Phillip Ens had an inspired evening as Claggart, his dark, resonant bass permeating every corner of the stage, and of the house. Claggart's aria (which E.M. Forster claimed to regard as his most important piece of writing in the opera) can sometimes seem rather mono-dimensional, but not as Ens delivered it here: it was a stupendous sing, oozing malevolence, stoking up the tension bar after bar to the mournful melodic undertones of first the saxophone and then the trombone. Elder's reading of this passage of the score, and Ens' performance of it, brought home forcibly just how classical Britten could be at times, the parallels with Iago's Credo in Verdi's Otello becoming vividly apparent. I had been led to believe prior to hearing him that Ens had a light voice for the part: not a bit of it, on this showing and hearing, he can deliver absolutely everything that the role demands. This was a stand-out performance.
Ainsley, by contrast, did not do quite enough with the role of Vere to merit the highest accolades. As stated, he certainly did not disappoint and everything that Ainsley sings is marked by intelligent phrasing, evenness of sound and purity of line. But the element of Vere's character to get across onstage (and it can be done, for I have seen it before) is his ability to command and to inspire his men: there is after all a reason why he is called ‘Starry Vere'. I felt that Ainsley was a shade too passive, a fraction too deeply involved in the introspective questions that are posed in the Prologue ('I am an old man who has experienced much') and left unanswered ('Why? How? What if?') in the Epilogue. On the other hand, an understated performance such as this does bring out all the poignancy of the story, and Ainsley was never better than in the final bars, the instruments of the orchestra falling silent as we are left with the solo tenor line, still wondering what he could or should have done to save an innocent life. In this production, the framing device and the positioning of Vere onstage worked very effectively.
Superlatives continue for the rest of the cast: Matthew Rose was luxury casting as Mr Flint, singing the role with easy assurance, great articulation and fluid line. Jeremy White was pathetic and credible as the lonely old sea dog Dansker, the man who knows trouble when he smells it a fathom off, befriends Billy but is powerless to do anything other than warn him of the danger posed by Claggart. Iain Paterson as Redburn and Darren Jeffery as Ratcliffe did everything that the roles demand, projecting well and creating their characters through intelligent singing and acting. As the unfortunate Novice (whose scarred and bleeding bare back after a flogging caused shudders throughout the house), Ben Johnson made a very attractive singing debut: his voice filled the theatre with ease and he too sang a fine and intelligent musical line. And overall, the sub-principals were as good an ensemble in their own right as were the crew in theirs. To hear the entire cast in full voice at the opera's climactic moments was a real musical and dramatic treat.
So Glyndebourne has a triumphant Billy Budd in its repertoire, to add to its enchanting Midsummer Night's Dream, assured and naturalistic Peter Grimes (both directed by Peter Hall), not to mention an entertaining Albert Herring and a striking The Turn of the Screw. John Christie is said to have greeted his friends at the opening night of Albert Herring at Glyndebourne in 1947 with the words: 'This isn't our kind of thing, you know'. One wonders what he would have made of this quintet of productions of operas by Britain's undoubted twentieth century master of the genre – or of a 2010 Billy Budd that exemplifies all the virtues of the Glyndebourne company system and that simply demands to be seen if at all possible.
Photo credits: Alastair Muir