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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd, opera in two acts, Op. 50
Jacques Imbrailo: Billy Budd
Toby Spence: Captain Vere
Brindley Sherratt: Claggart
Thomas Oliemans: Redburn
David Soar: Flint
Torben Jürgens: Ratcliffe
Clive Bayley: Dansker
Duncan Rock: Donald
Francisco Vas: Squeak
Sam Furness: Novice
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real, Madrid/Ivor Bolton
Deborah Warner (director), Michael Levine (stage design), Chloe Obolensky (costume design), Jean Kalman (lighting design), Kim Brandstrup (choreography)
rec. 2017, Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC554 Blu-ray [174 mins]

Deborah Warner’s recent production of Britten’s Billy Budd is a collaboration between Rome Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and the Teatro Real Madrid, whose bicentenary it celebrated and where this performance was filmed. It is a fine production and a fine performance of a great opera. Britten told Eric Crozier and E. M. Forster (called ‘Foster’ in the booklet and onscreen) that they had handed him one of the best librettos ever given to a composer. He proceeded to do it full justice with his brilliant score, exciting, moving and at times harrowing.

“800 litres of water, two sails, thirty pulleys, sixty hammocks … a colossal production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd” boasts BelAir of this Blu-ray release, and it does indeed look handsome most of the time. The costumes are naval, 20th century ones for officers and earlier (i.e., utilitarian scruffy) for other ranks. The staging features a backdrop of ropes across the whole of the back of the stage, floor to roof throughout, suggesting of course the ropes and ratlines of a warship from the age of sail, but also a vast enclosing net or the bars of a prison. HMS Indomitable is an inescapable world, and all on board are trapped within it.

There is a quarter-deck level and a cramped hammock-strewn scene below decks, crucial for the physical and social stratification of a man o’ war, reflected in the drama. (I have seen a production where Vere tells Claggart to “come up” when they are standing on the same level.) There is no interior space for the officers. Vere’s cabin is depicted by an oriental rug and an elegant table and chairs, and a bath from which he emerges to summon his officers and open Act 1, Scene 2. This works fine, except when Billy, having killed Claggart, is told by Vere to “wait in there”, for there is no separate closeted space for him so he just sits at the back of the stage. Yet Warner makes much of the opportunity this gives us to see what happens between Billy and Vere during that famous thirty-four chord sequence. The Prologue and Epilogue, the framing device that supposedly shows the long-retired Vere reflecting on the drama, are sung by Vere on deck and in his uniform. In Warner’s staging he never leaves these events, because they have never left him.

The cast is a strong one, the leads among the top choices for their roles in the world. Toby Spence’s Vere is vocally splendid, musically intelligent, and histrionically moving. The tragedy is his almost as much as Billy’s – his cry in the Prologue of “Oh, what have I done” is searing even before we have seen him do anything. Jacques Imbrailo’s superbly sung and acted Billy is familiar from his magnificent Glyndebourne account, and here he sounds equally inside the role. His ideally phrased, endlessly affecting “Ballad in the darbies” is invested almost with too much emotion, and he moves the viewer perhaps as much as any Billy ever has.

Brindley Sherrat’s bespectacled John Claggart , ponderous of movement and sepulchral of voice, is menacingly repressed, contemptuously servile towards his superiors, brutal to his inferiors. “Was I born yesterday” he asks? Surely this Master-at Arms was not born at all, but is the Devil’s spawn. Warner’s note suggest he is a fallen Angel, even though he sings of “that depravity to which I was born”. Certainly he suffers in his great soliloquy, that Satanic credo of motiveless malevolence he shares with just two operatic predecessors, Hagen and Iago. Like them, his remorseless actions drive the plot, and lead to his own destruction. Being killed outright by a single blow never quite looks convincing, but the moment is better staged here than in some productions.

There is strong casting of support roles, especially the Mr Redburn of Thomas Oliemans and the Mr Flint of David Soar, their characterisation nicely contrasted by Warner. When they take wine with their Captain, Flint sinks his glass at once and it has to be refilled, while Redburn nurses his glass pensively. We have a bluff drinker and his thoughtful colleague, reinforced by other production details. Clive Bayley is Dansker, and matches Imbrailo well in the stirring Verdian duet that closes Act 1. “Jemmy Legs is down on you” he warns, seeing that Billy’s goodness, not his stammer, is his fatal flaw.

Duncan Rock as Donald and Christopher Gillett as Red Whiskers suggest the casting budget for the Teatro Real’s bicentenary was generous (no sopranos to pay, of course). Sam Furness sings the Novice so beautifully that he sounds like a Vere in the making, given time. Ivor Bolton is clearly a master of the score, and the Orchestra of the Teatro Real are very good, if not quite outstanding, in music that may not come their way very often. The eloquent Mahlerian interlude that links Scenes 2 and 3 of Act 1 is superbly played, though, and unerringly paced by Bolton to its powerful climax, when the men of the Teatro Real Chorus vividly impersonate a bunch of 18th century seamen enjoying a sing-song and laddish clowning below decks. Plenty of opportunity for stage business here, but never overdone.

Direction, lighting and editing are a triumph, among the best I have seen for any filmed opera. The use of close-up at crucial dramatic moments, intimately lit and eloquently framed, suggest feature film technique, and show just how detailed some of Warner’s direction is – she is as familiar with Shakespeare as with opera, of course. This is not so much a film as a record of a staging but as a complement to it, for only from the front row of the stalls would you see much of what you can see here. The sound too is well up to Blu-ray’s high resolution standards.

There are no extras on the disc, nor even any external shots of the opera house at the outset. The opening credits roll over the silent pre-opening scene with the curtain up, and we are at once in the grip of the drama. The booklet has a note by Deborah Warner herself, a synopsis and a listing of the 38 tracks. That’s a generous number though it was not clear on the disc menu how to get beyond the initial listing of the first ten tracks. It seemed to need a few manoeuvres to get to the start of Act 2. Britten’s opera has been exceptionally lucky on film, and this BelAir issue is the fourth highly successful version. Each of Mackerras (BBC/Decca 1966 with Pears and Glossop), Atherton (ENO 1988, with Langridge and Allen), and Elder (Glyndebourne/Opus Arte 2010 with Imbrailo and Ainsley) are worth seeing and even owning. But the direction and staging in Madrid offer new insights, and an all-round cast as good as any.

Every good performance of Billy Budd should come with a health warning. This is not an opera for the squeamish, since we are invited to enjoy the spectacle of an innocent person being destroyed, and even though opportunities occur to avert disaster, the power of the score makes it feel inexorable. Madama Butterfly is perhaps the only comparable case in the opera repertoire. But if you are feeling strong enough, this will grip you throughout its near three hour length. For those who care about the work, or just about what staged opera on film can achieve, this is less a recommendation than a requirement.

Roy Westbrook

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