Billy Budd – Britten – Royal Opera House
It is incredible when in an all-male opera the keenest applause at curtain call is reserved for a lady – the female Director, Deborah Warner. She directs a new production for the ROH, in conjunction with opera houses, both in Madrid and Rome, where this production has already premiered. It is the ROH’s first new staging of this work since Zambello’s 1995 staging. Warner is becoming a bit of a Britten specialist with her brilliant Death in Venice for ENO in memory, with others to follow suit. Here she brings the 1797 time frame up to the modern era, with costumes by Chloe Obolensky and sets by Michael Levine to match. The abstract staging is based around moving platforms all surrounded by rigging, which at appropriate times move to produce varying levels on the stage, reflecting the different decks of the ship, HMS Indomitable.
It was very atmospheric and brilliantly lit by the Lighting Designer, Jean Kalman. Despite the openness of the stage, it was incredible how lighting was able to produce a compact scene at the front of the stage with the addition of a carpet and few chairs. Warner has clearly thought through every nuance of Britten’s incredible work, including Jacques Imbrailo’s entrance as Billy Budd, when he climbs up the rope without guidance, still singing out to the audience as he holds on for dear life without falling!
In fact, Jacques Imbrailo’s ‘idolised beauty’ and outstanding performance comes courtesy of previous outings, notably at Glyndebourne in the same role. He provides all the emotions from happy seamen to condemned murderer and his final aria ‘Billy in the Darbies’ was sung right at the edge, sometimes with a broken voiced delivery, adding to the crescendo of emotions as he approached his own hanging.
In an astonishing piece of direction, Captain Vere, who had the power to pardon Billy, but did not do so, was himself absolved of any guilt as Billy, leaving the stage after his conviction, places his hand on the top of Vere’s head in a stunning moment of absolution of Vere’s own sins.
Captain Vere was sung by the wonderful tenor voice of Toby Spence, who was on great form. He cuts a squeaky clean image, particularly in contrast to the John Claggart of Brindley Sherratt, who is evil personified, unable to control his own sexual emotions until he is floored and killed by Billy through a moment of stammering anger after an accusation of mutiny against him.
There are so many other great performances, particularly David Soar’s Mr Flint, the muscular Duncan Rock as Donald, Alasdair Elliott as Squeak, Thomas Oliemans as Mr Redburn, Peter Kellner as Lieutenant Ratcliffe and Clive Bayley as Dansker. There was also the sight of Sam Furness as the Novice, dragging his flogged body across stage singing ‘The pain will pass – the shame will never pass’ that so powerfully represented the injustice of men’s lives on the HMS Indomitable. Both Konu Kim as Maintop and Dominic Sedgwick as Novice’s Friend participate in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.
The Orchestra is conducted by Ivor Bolton, who is currently the Music Director in Madrid. His is a masterly if somewhat understated performance, occasionally missing some of the disturbing edges of the music, but always in balance between pit and stage – not always an easy task with this opera.
The chorus was simply outstanding, singing at the height of their power with pulsating rhythm and menace throughout the night. Sometimes bare chested, sometimes adequately covered and always excitingly choreographed by Kim Brandstrup and Joanna O’Keeffe.
In the end, it is Claggart’s ultimate cry ‘What hope is there in my own dark world for me’ and to an absent Billy ‘I will destroy you’, that will long remain in the memory in this gripping performance.