Champagne on the lawn and brutality below decks

Yes, it’s Billy Budd at Glyndebourne.  We went on Friday.  It’s manic at the moment, with a house move pending, so hence the delay in jotting down thoughts.  It also explains why this will be brief.

In essence, it was a stupendously good production, full of detail in a space at once cavernous and claustrophobic.  The curved prow of the ship, with galleries supported on scroll brackets was an atmospheric setting and in ‘working’ scenes, ropes were pulled across the set in ways that gave a convincing account of the work, endeavour and hazards involved in ship life.

That corroborative detail aside, all the performances were strong.  Jacques Imbrailo was a bright, giddy, enthusiastic, naive and touching Billy.  Phillip Ens gave a Claggart perhaps more subtle than is usual, but very secure and focused, with a controlled, insinuating aggression.  Jeremy White’s Dansker balanced gruff and sensitive well.  All voices projected, with words crisp, clear and meaningful.  You’ll note I haven’t mentioned the Vere of John Mark Ainsley.  The voice was bright, clear and rich, but I’m afraid the characterisation didn’t quite work for me.  Bostridge’s Vere was criticised in some quarters for being too intellectual, but at least that is something definable:  I just couldn’t work out what this Vere was about.  How on earth did he become captain of the Indomitable?  He seemed a bit… well… wimpy. And so everyone’s respect and affection for him seemed inexplicable.

This performance also seemed to lack that curious sexual frisson that certainly accompanied my last experience of the opera staged, when Halfvarson’s Claggart met Keenlyside’s Billy*.  I was struck again – but more forcefully this time – by the feeling that in the first act, no character really rises strongly above the ever-present crowd, but that then the protagonists are thrown into much stronger light in the second act.  The male chorus were absolutely fantastic throughout the performance:  their ‘Heave, o heave’ was a menacing groundswell of masculinity in music, and ‘Now is our moment’ built to a terrifying depiction of aggression and ‘up for it’ fight-over-flight response.  It occurred to me that someone should arrange that as a football anthem.

Mark Elder drew firm, assertive playing and the LPO were on fine form.  Despite the slight lack of a certain something from the characterisations, this was stunning stuff.  Every time I hear a Britten opera performed I get a little bit more excited by his style.  Much like Janacek, I still I can’t quite sit and listen to recordings, but when performed the works lift off the page into something quite special indeed.

All that, and possibly the easiest road journey to and from Glyndebourne I can remember in a long time.  Just what we needed to escape the boxes and bubblewrap.


* I think it was this pair, but the old ROH programmes are all packed into boxes so I can’t check, sorry!

One comment

  1. “I just couldn’t work out what this Vere was about. How on earth did he become captain of the Indomitable? He seemed a bit… well… wimpy. And so everyone’s respect and affection for him seemed inexplicable.”

    Actually — I never could work that out. He is definitely one I wouldn’t put in command of a ship if I were in charge. Not even the book can really explain the mystery to me.

    You can visit my blog, I have a few entries there tagged Claggart, or Billy Budd — most of them not really serious…^^

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