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.

Movement (presumably Warner's responsibility as no Movement Director is credited, but perhaps Kim Brandstrup (Choreographer)) is weak in several of the big choral segments including the opening scene, but most particularly the muster (though there are other factors here) and the final scene where the swaying ensemble at the back looks odd since nobody has been swaying up to now. The mutiny lacks threat, and we lose any sense of individual decisions - a point where other productions have done a lot with Dansker and Donald. The augmented Chorus works enormously hard both physically and vocally, but though there must have been many more of them onstage than for Opera North the evening never really made those numbers tell in the same way. There are also individual moments of muddle, or baffling movement - Squeak running up and down in a watery channel during his scene with Claggart (what those channels are doing in the layout of the deck is never really properly established) and the fussing about with Vere's carpet in the trial scene which is eventually explained but is annoyingly distracting to that point.

Michael Levine's (Set) periodically raised central deck was a puzzle. It's not in principle a bad idea to create separate spaces for officers and men, or to then emphasise, as I think Warner and Levine were trying to, the moments when they come together. But somehow that movement undermines rather than reinforces the idea of the shipboard world.

Key past directorial interpretations were simply better. Orla Phelan placed the opening and closing scenes in a suggestive ruined house. Warner's Vere just wanders about the ship. There is an extra to one side of the stage, but he and Vere don't interact, it is not sufficiently established whether he is supposed to be an aged Vere and, if so, where he is now. Then there's the trial scene. Traditionally the verdict is delivered behind closed doors, and, in most other productions I've seen, Budd is also not present while the officers are conducting discussions. Warner gives Vere a three room cabin receding towards the back of the stage, the boundaries apparently delineated by light (although Vere seemed to be able to go beyond them in Act 1 Scene 2). Whenever he isn't singing in the trial sequence Budd is fully visible in Vere's bathroom at the back. It didn't seem to me that Warner knew what to do with him having put him there and, for the most part, it distracts from rather than reinforces the drama of the scenes playing out further forward. The music and text tells us so much about Budd's plight here - I don't think we need to see him. It's also worth noting that this practice can be broken to overwhelming effect, as Phelan did in her staging of Vere delivering the verdict. Warner doesn't find anything like the same punch.

There are some strong individual moments. Her staging of Billy's farewell to the Rights o' Man (mishandled by David Alden in the most recent ENO production) is nicely done, and Budd's hand on the sinning Vere's head just before he descends to the darbies is powerful.

The problems with the production are linked to issues in Ivor Bolton's musical interpretation which I didn't find nearly as convincing as Mark Elder's at Glyndebourne or Garry Walker's for Opera North. Thinking over it afterwards it reminded me of aspects of Leo Hussain's flawed approach to A Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO for the dire Christopher Alden production. Bolton takes his cue from the bleaker dimension of the music and flattens out other aspects so that that mood dominates - particularly through Act 2. The most serious consequence of this is a muster scene which was probably the dullest I've heard - in my view this is a moment which should build to an electrifying climax, making the disappointment of losing the French ship all the sharper and drawing a much more distinct contrast with the scenes which follow. Bolton also seemed uncomfortable with the jaunty sea shanties of Act 1 Scene 3, and ensemble and pit didn't sound wholly in unity. After the trial dramatic tension slackened badly and though Bolton finds the luminous, stirring quality of Vere's sighting of the sail it isn't enough to forget the preceding loss of momentum. There's a linked slackness in the production here so I assume the overall effect was intentional and perhaps the aim is to emphasise a ship in suspension but the cost to drama is too high.

Bolton also handles some of the scenes with Vere's officers less effectively than others. There's less wit and lightness to Redburn (Thomas Oliemans) and Flint's (David Soar) "don't like the French" remarks. In the trial scene the voices of the trio (now adding Peter Kellner's Ratcliffe) blended less well than on other occasions. Again I suspect the openness of the staging didn't help but they also seemed to struggle harder to bring out distinctly all the words - that wonderful set of lines - "There's the Mutiny Act/the King's Regulations/the Articles of War ought to weave hauntingly around each other, each line absolutely distinct and yet blended mournfully together and this performance didn't find that (compare specifically Elder's approach on the live Glyndebourne recording). All that said the Royal Opera House Orchestra played well as usual.

The soloists fully commit to the production. Jacques Imbrailo, who I previously heard sing the role at Glyndebourne, comes off best. He still possesses that energetic physicality he brought to Grandage's staging and it again fits the part well. He risks very soft singing in his monologue and it compelled and moved. Toby Spence sings a finer Vere than any I've heard since Philip Langridge for Tim Albery at ENO but the production's effect is that he actually moved me less than Alan Oke for Opera North. Brindley Sherratt's Claggart is strongly done but again it may just be an effect of the acoustics of the staging that I felt Phillip Ens at Glyndebourne had just that bit more darkness and weight in the voice.  There are some fine supporting contributions, and all the minor roles are decently taken, but the production doesn't always develop the characters as well as other versions - the direction of Dansker (Clive Bayley) is a case in point.

This is an opera I will always try and see when it is staged. I think it's a work of enormous power. On this occasion, despite knowing what's to come, I found myself longing in the trial scene for the pattern to be changed. But although there are fine individual moments here, and commendable commitment from all concerned, this was not an operatic evening to rank alongside past great performances I've experienced.

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