When the Glyndebourne 2010 programme was announced I was not particularly excited. I had recently seen the Covent Garden Rake's Progress, I do not like Hansel and Gretel or Macbeth. One opera alone leapt out at me, a first Glyndebourne production of Britten's Billy Budd with Jacques Imbrailo in the title role, and directed by Michael Grandage. Thanks to family backing, I am now buying my way into Associate Membership, so instead of the usual business of hoping for returns I was able to book my tickets in the members booking period. Thankfully, there was no cause to regret this hefty financial investment. This performance is one of the finest things I have seen in the opera house for some time, and I urge anybody who loves this too rarely performed masterpiece to snatch up a return and hasten down to Sussex.
Billy Budd was the first Britten opera I ever saw staged in an unforgettable ENO production featuring the late Philip Langridge as Vere, the late Richard Van Allan as Claggart and the fortunately still with us Thomas Allen as Budd. Fortunately, Grandage's vision of the piece is equally effective. He closes in the Glyndebourne stage with several semi-circular gantries. The sea is all round us, but we never actually see it. The men, including the impressively agile Imbrailo, scurry around them, hauling in ropes (an act which becomes horribly significant at the conclusion), scrambling up ladders, scrubbing down the deck. The set also effectively portrays the fragile boundaries constructed between officers and men. Grandage has a wonderful visual sense of the complete ensemble picture, creating vivid effects throughout, but nowhere more so than in the haunting tableau of Billy's execution.
This opera, more than many others, depends on having a really fine ensemble, and this Glyndebourne production does the work proud in that regard. All the minor roles (Novice, Sailing Master, off-stage sailor) were finely taken. Below decks, Alasdair Elliott (Red Whiskers), John Moore (Donald) and Jeremy White (Dansker) all gave beautifully judged performances. Similarly, the trio of Vere's officers, Mr Redburn (Iain Paterson), Mr Flint (Matthew Rose) and Lieutenant Ratcliffe (Darren Jeffery). The subdued trio in the trial scene was delivered so that every neatly dove-tailed little phrase was audible without recourse to the surtitles (indeed, the general standard of diction was high – ENO take note) and their plaintive appeal to Vere - “Sir, we need you as always” - was another powerful moment.
But it is the three principals who are really crucial and here was the one slight disappointment of the production. I concur with print media critics who have already commented on John Mark Ainsley's Vere as being a bit withdrawn from the action. It is not a bad performance, and I assume that it must have been at Grandage's direction, but I don't think this rather withdrawn interpretation quite works. I take the point that Vere is more learned than everybody else, and that his reputation with the crew rests to a degree on his being a man apart from everyone else aboard – hence the trinity with Budd and Claggart - but he still needs that authority to come across during the story proper as the man the men trust to out-fox the French. Ainsley did not quite convince me in that regard. I also felt that his voice was not quite commanding enough for the part – it tended to seem just that little bit outside his comfort zone, and he wasn't quite able to give the point to the words that others commanded. However, this is in a sense nitpicking – the performance in which he is embedded is so powerful that it certainly carried me past his occasional infelicities. There were no such problems with the other two leads. Jacques Imbrailo is simply outstanding, from his first high-spirited farewell to the Rights of Man through to his lonely farewell to life, again another passage whose text is haunting. As Claggart, Phillip Ens is suitably evil, a great growling bass spitting out his condemnation of the saintly Budd, stalking the stage with slow forbidding presence.
Mark Elder's conducting was absolutely masterful (as was the playing from an on-form London Philharmonic Orchestra). To begin with I felt at times it was a little quiet, but as it proved Elder was pacing his climaxes to absolute perfection. At the key moments, almost from nowhere, a great wall of sound would roll up and out from the pit, enveloping me, shaking me with its power. The muster to action building up as cannons were rolled into position, marines pranced into place, the whole crew gazing yearningly towards a French ship invisible to us, was breath-taking. Even more so though, was a musical moment I had completely forgotten. I remembered that Vere's monologues frame the action, but not his revelation of divinity in the final bars, the sighting of the distant sail. The beauty and power of the moment as it emerged from the orchestra was very moving.
In short this is a great performance of a masterpiece. It is a reminder that Billy Budd deserves to be far more frequently staged, and it might also serve as a useful reminder to some of our other opera companies (ENO I'm looking at you) that great performances can be achieved from first time opera directors who don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel, but are confident enough to produce something faithful to the true spirit of the piece. I hope it will be often revived, and toured, so that as many people as possible get the chance to see it. In the meantime, haste ye to Sussex.