Britten’s extraordinarily powerful work was oppressively dressed in Michael Grandage’s production from the 2010 Festival. The busy, vigorous and violent life on board ship was brought to life as sailors clambered on the galleries on either side of the prow-shaped sets. Transitions to the calmer atmosphere of Captain Vere’s deck were nicely handled, and overall the space was intelligently deployed so as to provide a wide-ranging and dynamic playing space, using the sides and height of the stage whilst remaining sensitive to the restricted view ticket holders (such as us) in a horse-shoe shaped auditorium.
Sir Andrew Davis led the LPO, who were on gorgeously incisive form. He gave a natural shape to the score, balancing the violent percussive intercessions against the moments of beautiful lyricism. The huge choral dynamics of ‘This is our moment’ were well-handled, to full thrilling effect. The chorus were wonderful: lots of little details as individuals, threatening in the combined sound – surely one of Britten’s own hallmarks.
All of the principal performances were absolutely first rate. A host of smaller characters were brought vividly to life, notable amongst them Jeremy White’s seasoned Dansker, the Novice of Peter Gijsbertsen, and Duncan Rock as a physically imposing Novice’s Friend. Stephen Gadd and Darren Jeffery brought authority to Redburn and Ratcliffe. In the lead role, Jacques Imbrailo had deepened his Billy Budd since I last remember it, and his wild, simple enthusiasm blended nicely over the course of the opera into a more substantially philosophical demeanour as he was forced to contemplate the execution that had been foretold in his feverish dreams. Brindley Sherratt emphasised insinuation and calculation over brute force as his antagonist, Claggart: not that there wasn’t violence when required, but this was a sound, complex portrayal of a weak-man-turned-bully. In Mark Padmore’s hands, Captain Vere’s anguish after the trial packed a real punch, and his two book-ending monologues as the ‘old Vere’ set the tone and really drew out the pathos, respectively. All three lead roles (as indeed were all other participants) were models of good diction, aided by the theatre’s size and acoustic. It was opera in English at its most immediate and thrilling. The execution scene at the end was almost unbearable to watch.
However much the odd bit of pomp and ceremony is fun, I could happily have left such a searing opera experience at the close and simply made my contemplative way home up the A23. The last performance is, however, traditionally followed by a thank you speech by Gus Christie, a nice mixture of thanks to those that have made the Festival a success, those that are retiring from Glyndebourne’s service, and those that have stumped up the larger amounts of cash. The next season was also announced, Glyndebourne’s 80th, details of which are on their website to whet your appetite.
And then, having watched innocence and goodness brought to harrowing destruction by the rigid application of the King’s Regulations, we were demanded to our feet to sing the national anthem. Well, most of us were.