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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Billy Budd (1951, revised 1960)
Jacques Imbrailo: Billy Budd
Toby Spence: Captain Vere
Brindley Sherratt: John Claggart
Thomas Oliemans: Mr Redburn
David Soar: Mr Flint
Torben Jürgens: Lieutenant 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 BAC154 DVD [2 discs: 175 mins]

Pages 477 to 480 of the Boosey and Hawkes orchestral score of Billy Budd make quite an extraordinary sight. Thirty-four common chords, one for each four-beat bar, are distributed between different instrumental groups, full orchestra, winds, strings, sometimes just four horns. The dynamics of these chords are scrupulously marked, vary from bar to bar and range between ff and ppp, so that this is far from a simple diminuendo. Billy Budd, able seaman and willing conscript, has been falsely accused of inciting mutiny by John Claggart, Master at Arms of HMS Indomitable, the ship on which both men serve. The ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, has convened the two so that the accusations, which he believes to be unfounded, can be delivered and, he no doubt expects, refuted. But Billy Budd has a stammer that renders him unable to speak at moments of emotional stress. “It comes and it goes”, he says. He is deeply affected by the injustice of Claggart’s accusations and, despite the gentle encouragement of his Captain unable to speak, he strikes out in frustration and, with a single blow, kills Claggart. Vere summons his officers, and a drumhead court finds the prisoner guilty and sentences him to hang. Vere is tormented by the feeling that he could, and should, have allowed Budd to escape such a fate. He decides to inform Billy of the court’s decision himself. He enters the small stateroom where Billy has been waiting, and closes the door. Then comes Britten’s extraordinary coup de théâtre, as the thirty-four chords, played before an empty stage, tell of the tumultuous interview taking place behind the scene.

In this largely superb production, Deborah Warner has taken the decision to ignore Britten’s wishes at this crucial moment. Billy is sent into the anteroom well enough, but there is no wall, so he remains visible, and even seems to react to what is being said in the other room. When Vere finally joins him, what happens on stage between them is considerably less powerful than nothing at all, which is what the composer intended. There are a few further anomalies in Warner’s vision of the work. Billy arrives in the Captain’s cabin in an excited mood because he thinks he is going to be promoted. Though the essence of Billy’s character is naïve simplicity, would he really have been so much at ease with his commanding officer as to take a seat without permission? There is more physical contact between the Captain and his officers than appears seemly to this landlocked listener; and indeed, the Captain, as magnificently played here by Toby Spence, and presumably as conceived by Warner, is not at all the patrician, lofty, intellectual figure, revered by his crew and nicknamed “Starry Vere”, but someone much more approachable, human and vulnerable. The first time we encounter him he is, bizarrely, reading in his bath, whereupon he calls his officers in for a glass of wine, receiving them in his dressing gown. And then, the Prologue and Epilogue that frame the action are meant to portray Vere in retirement, many years after the event, reflecting sadly on Billy’s story. In this production we see him in uniform. The very first words of the opera are his: ‘I am an old man’, though he clearly isn’t.

This kind of thing might have scuppered the production for good and might well disturb those with traditional views about how the piece should go. But the truth is that this is a highly successful staging of a difficult opera. Examples of Warner’s ideas that will surprise anyone familiar with the work, but which work wonderfully well are far too numerous to list. The characters of the two officers, Redburn and Flint, for example, are deftly differentiated by means of many a small detail. Billy’s exuberance as he cries out his farewells to his old life in his first scene is superbly staged. More contentious, perhaps, but striking all the same, is the moment when Billy places his hand on Vere’s heading, literally like a blessing, as the Captain precedes him to leave after he has communicated the drumhead court’s verdict.

The cast is very strong indeed. Jacques Imbrailo’s assumption of Billy is well known to opera-goers, and he is on particularly strong form here. The key to his story, his most overt ‘flaw’, is his stammer, and I find it difficult to hold back the tears when this manifests itself for the first time. (Britten’s music, suggesting a stammer, is extraordinarily vivid and affecting.) Vocally speaking, there is not a weak link in the cast, and what makes this a stand-out performance, particularly on video, is the superb quality of the acting. Opera is, of course, basically absurd. But these remarkable artists convince both by the quality of their singing and their acting. Brindley Sherratt, immobile and bespectacled, is horrifyingly menacing, and by provoking Billy with a grimace as the able seaman is disabled by his stammer, precipitates his own death. (Interestingly, Vere does not see this, as his back is turned. He is not, therefore, and strictly speaking, a true witness to the killing.) The trial scene is particularly successful, Redburn’s outburst, “Why did you do it?” a brilliant assumption of someone consumed by outrage and frustration. The scenes with the chorus are particularly well handled, with lots of bodies on stage, and the tricky final scene, where the wordless chorus seems to be threatening instant mutiny following the death by hanging of their comrade, is particularly innovative and successful.

I cannot fault the playing of the Madrid orchestra, and the chorus is magnificent. Ivor Bolton leads a performance which I find perfectly paced, with all the necessary dramatic points brought out without exaggeration.

On video, performances from Glyndebourne, with Imbrailo as Billy, and one made for television, with the wonderful Thomas Allen, are both excellent. This one is just as fine, and many will prefer it. No serious Britten admirer will want to be without the Decca (audio only) recording of this incomparable masterpiece, though, with Peter Glossop as Billy and the whole under the direction of the composer himself.

William Hedley

Previous reviews (Blu-ray): Roy Westbrook ~ Robert Cummings



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