Billy Budd at Glyndebourne

We are dragged down into the deep, dark, timbered underbelly of the vessel
— an airless, light-deprived pit, where human emotions are, ironically,
simultaneously repressed and magnified. The stratified hierarchies of the
ship’s upper decks which loom above this suffocating netherworld oddly invert
the more tranquil orders of the theatre’s own wooden interior, the blanched
hues and cruel undercurrents of this submerged, Hadean abyss an unsettling
counterpoint to our own comforts and civilities.

It is a world of callous, merciless severity, but one alleviated by communal
understanding, simple shared pleasures, and surprising acts of kindness amid
the rough company. Billy’s selfless sharing of his ‘baccy’ to ease old
Dansker’s despondent stoicism is later matched by the old sea-dog’s gentle
ministrations to the imprisoned and condemned ‘Baby’. Similarly, as
Billy’s friends skilfully tie the knots that will imminently break his neck,
the painful tenderness of their actions contrasts heartbreakingly with the
wretched ruthlessness of their superior officers.

Mark Padmore — View from the Bridge on Vimeo.

Grandage and Oram recreate wartime naval life — its routines, deprivations
and brutalities — with detailed exactitude and veracity: ropes are bundled
and pitched; riggings are pulled and tugged; seamen heave and haul, then seek
meagre rest from their troubles and toils in paltry swinging hammocks. Movement
director Tom Roden deserves much praise for the polished choreography: the
swarming sailors go about their humdrum exertions with grace, spryly eluding
the biting flick of a whip, the threatening thud of a baton; Billy Budd nimbly
flings himself from balcony to deck, dangling from guard-rail and banister with
gymnastic litheness; and the choral set-pieces are masterpieces of physical
narrative. The crew assuage the gloom with a sprightly sea shanty which is
toe-tappingly infectious in its expression of life’s humble joys. At the
start of Act 2, the men’s excitement during the pursuit of the French ship is
wonderfully complemented by the ceremonial scarlet of the musketeers and
drummers (costume supervisor, Sarah Middleton; wig supervisor, Sheila
Slaymaker) and the animation of the ship’s proud red flag in the blustering
breeze, and the extinction of this flash of colour and hope by the returning
hoary mist emphasises the mood of bitter disappointment and futility.

The large cast are uniformly excellent, individually defining their roles,
collectively bonding in adversity. The ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere,
is supported by a highly competent and professional naval team: the crisp
bellows of Darren Jeffery’s Lieutenant Ratcliffe are a clarion call to order
and discipline, while Mr Flint (David Soar) and Mr Redburn (Stephen Gadd) prowl
menacingly among the men, their commands glowing with potent intimidation.
There are many welcome role reprisals from 2010, including Colin Judson’s
squirming Squeak, Alasdair Elliott’s exuberant Red Whiskers and Richard
Mosely-Evans’ Bosun. Jeremy White is once again a powerfully dignified
Dansker, his voice full of wisdom, quiet honour and weary resignation. Peter
Gjsbertsen, who sang Maintop in 2010, is here a movingly pathetic Novice,
driven by a desperate fear to betray Billy, against instinct and love. Duncan
Rock, another returnee from three years ago, is particularly note-worthy as the
Novice’s Friend, singing with heartfelt warmth tinged with a levelling
pragmatism. The several soloists from the Glyndebourne Chorus — Benjamin Cahn
(Second Mate), Brendan Collins (Arthur Jones) and Michael Wallace (First Mate)
— all acquit themselves very well.

Which brings us to the three central characters — two of whom are singing
their roles for the first time — whose tortured triangle of emotional
entanglements brings about such wasteful death and tragedy.

Brindley Sherratt is a disturbing John Claggart, his dark bass paradoxically
beautiful, its lustrous sheen painfully at odds with the sentiments of his
malicious utterances. This Master-at-Arms lurks and skulks among his
underlings, tense and discreet, a ticking time-bomb unleashing flashes of
malevolence which reveal the monstrous depths of his loathing for those whose
fates he rules — a revulsion which, in his ‘Credo’, is turned upon his
own degenerate soul. Sherratt’s bristling self-containment is eerily
disconcerting: he presents his mendacious denouncement of Billy to his scornful
Captain with an unsettling blend of subservience, humility and contempt.

Vere himself remains an elusive figure — withdrawn, reticent, absorbed by
his erudite library but distanced from the men whose lives depend upon him.
Indeed, in Mark Padmore’s highly original interpretation, Captain Vere is
less a ‘Starry’ leader, a man of action inspiring loyal devotion from his
seamen, than a philosophising recluse, introverted and evasive, angered by the
unavoidable circumstances of war, and by his own reflections and motivations.

Padmore is characteristically thoughtful and dramatic in his delivery of the
text, dispensing with surtitles in the self-scrutinising prologue and epilogue
which frame the action aboard ship. When alone, Vere’s furious
self-reproaches are astonishing vehement, his outburst during the Epilogue,
‘What have I done?’, a ferocious vocal punch. And while at the top
Padmore’s tone is sometimes strained, the characterisation never wavers. The
reserved self-possession which Vere displays when presenting his account to the
drumhead court is shockingly cold; but such restraint does present some
problems in terms of the coherence of the narrative. For, it is not clear why a
man of such apparent moderation and self-control, educated and articulate,
would stay silent, denying his ineloquent devotee a fair and balanced hearing.
Why does this Vere arouse such affection among his men, and particularly from
Billy? What is the nature of his feelings for the boy he calls ‘an angel’
— fatherly fondness, or something more? When his officers plead for his
guidance, knowledge and wisdom, ‘Sir, we need you as always’, why does he
refuse to save his protÈgÈe?

Grandage and Oram neglect not a detail of the practicalities of naval life,
but do not venture far into the psychological complexities of Melville’s
narrative, and the homosexual tensions of both the novella and Forster’s
libretto are somewhat disregarded. Similarly, Paule Constable’s lighting is
typically sensitive and atmospheric but essentially a visual complement, rather
than an active element in the drama.

Melville’s ironic insinuations, Forster’s symbols and suggestions, and
the musical inferences of the score are not really explored. Thus, Claggart’s
‘sickness’ — what Melville elusively termed ‘natural depravity’ —
seems merely an inhuman ‘evil’; like Iago he is driven not by covetousness
or passion, but because he perceives in another a ‘goodness’, one that he
does not wish to possess (in either sense of the word) but which he must
destroy because he recognises that ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/ That
makes me ugly’. Padmore’s inscrutable Vere similarly offers few hints of
any erotic undercurrents between the three men; the ‘foul word’ that the
officers ‘scarcely dare speak’, is simply ‘mutiny’, the threat not
within, insidious and ineradicable, but straightforward and easily oppressed by
violent domination.

Reprising his 2010 Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo is absolutely splendid, his
mature, strong voice complementing an honest openness and youthful physical
charm. Billy’s cheerful blue shirt and fancy red neckerchief bring a splash
of colour into the sailor’s grey lives, just as his breezy good humour and
bright optimism alleviate the dour, dull days with sunny hope. Imbrailo’s
phrasing is full of buoyancy and vigour, his tone pleasing and fresh, but not
without the occasion touch of realistic roughness to bring credibility to the
portrayal of innocence. It is immediately obvious why his fellow seamen hold
him in such warm affection, and also why he so easily falls prey to
Claggart’s Machiavellian deceptions. Awoken by the Novice, whose gleaming
guineas are designed to tempt him to rebel, Billy’s faraway, fragmented
remembrances of the deep fathoms into which his dream had lulled him are
achingly prophetic. And, condemned to die, enchained in the darbies, his tender
strains as the rays of moonlight stray through the porthole are touchingly
pure, full of sweet sorrow.

Conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Davis has a good grasp
of the narrative thrust of the score and makes much of its cinematic
scene-painting: the shriek of wind and whistle, the thump of surging wave and
rolling drum, the cries of suffering and of battle. If he never quite winds
things up to a fever pitch of intensity, anguish and paranoia, this is an
unfailingly controlled and clear reading. The saxophone’s roving dirge during
the flogging of the Novice has a paradoxical and painful mellifluousness; and
the recollection of the ‘interview chords’ as Billy accepts his fate
—‘I’m contented’, ‘I’m strong, and I know it … and I’ll stay
strong’ — powerfully underline the Amen of forgiveness evoked by the
original plagal sequence.

The even rocking of the string lines which open the Prologue effectively
conveys both the inexorable lapping of the ocean and the insistent urgings of
Vere’s memory. In this regard, the masterstroke of the production comes in
the final scene when Vere oversees Billy’s execution, not from a platform
aloft but from amid his men, dressed as an old man: it is clear that what we
have seen is a re-enactment of the past as experienced by a man who is plagued
by regret, guilt and futile contrition.

This is a consummate production, exemplary in terms of its dramatic and
musical consistency. There are still a few tickets available for performances
on 15, 17 and 22 August. Don’t miss out.

Claire Seymour

Listen to Billy Budd podcast:

Cast and production information:

Captain Vere, Mark Padmore; Billy Budd, Jacques Imbrailo; Claggart,
Brindley Sherratt; Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Darren Jeffery; Mr Flint, David Soar;
Mr Redburn, Stephen Gadd; Red Whiskers, Alasdair Elliott; Dansker, Jeremy
White; Squeak, Colin Judson; Novice, Peter Gijsbertsen; Novice’s Friend,
Duncan Rock; Bosun, Richard Mosley-Evans; Donald, John Moore; First Mate,
Michael Wallace; Second Mate, Benjamin Cahn; Maintop, Dean Power; Arthur Jones,
Brendan Collins; Cabin Boy, Charlie Gill; Midshipmen, Sebastian Davies/ Tom
Foreman/ William Gardner/ Quentin-Zach Martins/Will Roberts; Conductor, Andrew
Davis; Director, Michael Grandage; Revival Director, Ian Rutherford; Designer,
Christopher Oram; Lighting Designer, Paule Constable; Movement Director, Tom
Roden; London Philharmonic Orchestra; The Glyndebourne
Chorus. Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Saturday 10 August, 2013.

image_description=A scene from Billy Budd [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith]
product_title=Billy Budd at Glyndebourne
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: A scene from Billy Budd [ Photo Richard Hubert Smith]