Britten and Britten Variations at Glyndebourne

18 Aug

One of the nice innovations at Glyndebourne in recent years has been the free performances in the Jerwood Studio before a small number of the performances towards the end of the season.  It’s an opportunity for experimentation and for some chorus members to get some additional experience. The Yellow Sofa was first done here and proved a fine opportunity for a promising young composer to try his hand at opera.

This year, their Composer in Residence, Luke Styles had an opportunity with Wakening Shadow.  I saw the last performance on 17th August.  Styles has taken three of Britten’s Canticles, orchestrated them and added three of his own settings and an opening to, apparently, explore the relationship between man and divinity.  It lasts about 70 minutes.

The good things about the performance were the committed performances by the cast (particularly outstanding performance from Owen Willetts as the counter-tenor roles in the Canticles, Rupert Charlesworth in the Saint Narcissus canticle and Stuart Jackson in Abraham and Isaac, Vladimir Jurowski’s splendid conducting and, I felt Styles’s confidence with the orchestra.  The sound world that he created for the instrumentalists was fascinating and, particularly in the Britten settings, provided a really strong background for the words.  I enjoyed listening to it.

The less good things were the overall concept itself, which struck me as messy and difficult to follow, Daisy Evans’s frankly desperate attempts to make it interesting and, ultimately,  Styles’s setting of words.  By putting his own settings of Shelley, Brodsky and Byron alongside Britten’s, he was setting himself a very high bar indeed.  Whenever Britten’s settings started, you felt a sense of relief at being able to make out the words and, more importantly, the sentences and the meaning.  I wasn’t convinced this was a coherent or dramatic work.

Still, it wasn’t a wasted afternoon.  It’s good to have the opportunity to hear Styles’s music and I heard enough to feel that I wanted to hear more.  It will be good to hear WIlletts, Jackson and Charlesworth again, too.

The main reason for the visit, though, was to see the revival of Billy Budd. The reviews have been outstanding and it’s an opera i love.  When I saw it in 2010, I wasn’t completely convinced by Michael Grandage’s production, finding it a bit remote and without the insights that, say, Vick, Albery and Alden have found in this opera and I thought Jacques Imbraillo’s Budd a bit anonymous.  But the prospect of Andrew Davis conducting and Mark Padmore as Vere was enticing.

I spent the first three quarters of this performance admiring the evening but without being involved.  Grandage’s production is clear and honest.  It tells the story cleanly but without a single interesting or memorable image.  Characters act and react to each other well.  I suspect that this is a production which works better from the stalls where you are closer and can watch the acting (Grandage’s main successes recently have been at the Donmar Warehouse, where every blink counts).  The set, specifically a ship is claustrophobic (of course it’s meant to be) and heavy, which works for telling the story but doesn’t provide some of the lightness and spaciousness that, in fact, the opera needs if the metaphysical element is to come across.  Twice a ceiling comes down which effectively cuts off those of us in the upper regions of the theatre.

Davis’s conducting struck me as strong, clear but without making you aware, as Mark Elder did when this was new, of the remarkable tinta of the opera, the specific dark colouring.  The singers were excellent and there was nothing to dislike.  Padmore was a fine, clear Vere, Imbraillo seemed much more assured than last time, but still a bit anonymous; Brindley Sherratt was a well-sung, reptilian, sinister Claggart.

Then, after Claggart died, the whole piece started to become gripping and enthralling.  The trial scene became a centre piece as everyone new what the outcome would be and knew that it was wrong.  You understood the dilemma and agonised over it.  Then came Billy in the Darbies and I don’t think I have ever heard it more beautifully sung.  Imbraillo caught anger and about it that I’d not heard before, but also a stillness.  I don’t think I’ve heard it sung more softly.  The scene with Jeremy White’s marvellous Dansker was heart-breaking and one of Grandage’s finest images is the picture of Dansker, the Novice’s Friend and the two other pressed men, holding the rope that hangs Billy.  The rebellion seemed to me to be the most threatening and likely to succeed that I’ve seen.  At that point, the audience was gripped and it was left to Mark Padmore to wrap it up wonderfully.  This is the magic that at good Budd should weave.

Padmore didn’t disappoint.  He sounds entirely right for the role and has exactly the right intellectual, other-worldly worried mien for the man – he is easily the finest Vere since Philip Langridge and I don’t think I can imagine a better.  Sherratt’s Claggart managed to combine the violence and sheer creepiness that it is in the man.  There were super performances from Peter Gijsbertsen as the Novice, Duncan Rock as his friend and the remainder of the officers.  The chorus was outstanding.

I had thought until the interval that Andrew Davis’s conducting was, as you would expect from him – fine, idiomatic and hugely reliable.  In the second Act, it was substantially more than that.  It’s a long time since I’ve heard the battle scene have the level of impact that it provided here.  He ratched up the tension as the Act went on and, at the end, there was a silence as the audience absorbed what it had seen and heard.  He’s a great conductor and, after his return for Rusalka in 2011, it would be nice to see him back again soon.

So it was a good day at Glyndebourne – but go for the more expensive seats.

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3 Responses to “Britten and Britten Variations at Glyndebourne”

  1. Luke styles August 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Luke Styles is the composer in residence not Luke Bedford.

    • operanotes August 23, 2013 at 9:29 am #

      I am very sorry and embarrassed by the mistake, which is now corrected. I shall look out for your next work.

      • Luke Styles August 23, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

        No problem. I hope you can make some of my upcoming performances.

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