Thursday, 2 May 2019

Billy Budd at the Royal Opera, or, In the Shadow of Past Glories

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 29th April 2019.

We've been lucky in the UK recently to have two excellent productions of this masterpiece - Michael Grandage's for Glyndebourne and Orla Phelan's for Opera North. Altogether this was, I think, my fifth production of a work I cherish. At both Glyndebourne and Opera North I was powerfully moved. Indeed, there were sections in the latter stages of Phelan's production that were overwhelming. Here, in Billy's monologue and his farewell with Dansker tears did come to my eyes, but overall this evening fell short in various ways of those triumphs.

Deborah Warner's production has been imported from Madrid, and arrives trailing praise. From my customary Amphitheatre perch I had more mixed reactions. There's an awful lot of ropes in evidence (something seen before in other productions) and sails (less common) but Warner is much less successful than others at creating that claustrophobic seaboard world so critical to the drama. For most of the evening the stage is very open and there is simply too much space, and not just around the sides. Despite the large numbers of extra chorus and actors credited in the programme they often feel lost in the space in the big chorus numbers, where they should be jammed in. Similar problems apply to the more intimate scenes - when Vere sings of his "narrow cabin" it just isn't. The open stage also, I suspect, has musical consequences diffusing rather than concentrating the vocal sound of all concerned making it harder for dynamic variety to impact and for individual voices to come through the texture at key moments.