Rupert Christiansen was enthralled beyond his wildest hopes by this stupendous achievement. Rating: * * * * *
I admit I’d have been surprised if Glyndebourne’s first production of Billy Budd had been less than a success. Britten’s magnificent music drama, the proven talents of conductor Sir Mark Elder, director Michael Grandage, and a superb cast led by John Mark Ainsley’s Captain Vere – well, with that combination of elements, you’d need to be pretty incompetent to muck things up.
But I was still enthralled beyond my wildest hopes by this stupendous achievement, and scarcely know where to begin lavishing praise. If there are any tickets for the remaining performances, I can only urge every serious opera-lover to go to murderous lengths to acquire them.
Mark Elder’s conducting held the score in an iron grip. Never one to rush things or skate over details, he drove the London Philharmonic Orchestra to the music’s depths, generating overwhelming power and emotional impact in the great climaxes – the haunting sounds of Billy’s hanging are still echoing in my ears as I write.
Grandage’s immaculate staging offers a rare authenticity. In Christopher Oram’s breathtaking hulk of a set, the world of a man o’ war in the Napoleonic era is evoked with a scrupulous accuracy that never becomes pedantic period reconstruction. This isn’t a wilfully original interpretation (the old Vere’s ghostly appearance at Billy’s demise is its only innovation), but it is one of supreme intelligence and scrupulous respect for the text.
Grandage captures all the ship’s sweaty shut in-ness, the hierarchy of its officers, the rigours of naval discipline, and the rituals of rope and sail.
The story-telling is pellucid, the characterisation focused down to the last rating. All I could have wished for was a little more imaginative playing-out of the repressed erotic tension – the essential queerness – between Billy, Claggart and Vere.
But Philip Ens makes a fascinating Claggart, as cool and sure as a panther, in contrast to the helpless, educated decency of John Mark Ainsley’s Captain Vere, sung with a marvellous warmth of phrase and fullness of line.
Jacques Imbrailo is a radiant Billy with a terrifyingly violent stammer, and the award-winning young tenor Ben Johnson makes his mark as the Novice, as do four top-notch basses – Ian Paterson (Redburn), Jeremy White (Dansker), Matthew Rose (Flint) and Darren Jeffrey (Ratcliffe).
Then there is the legendary Glyndebourne Chorus, lifting the roof off the place under its new master Jeremy Bines. A great and unforgettable evening.