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Powerful Opera North Billy Budd

4 Nov

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance of Billy Budd.  Rather like Janacek, which is slightly dodgy box office, you have to want to do it.  Opera North’s latest production, which I saw at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal on 3 September is no exception and was, indeed, one of the two or three most shattering that I’ve seen.

The central performance here was Alan Oke’s Vere which, for me, eclipsed Philip Langridge.  I will not forget the sheer agony that he conveyed during and after the trial – something which turned him from the academic, rather remote figure into someone who had to engage in life and death and who got it wrong.  At that moment, you realised that the opera is about Vere and his journey.  The picture of him sitting, awkwardly askew, face line with doubt and sadness is one of the most haunting that I’ve seen.  Oke sang beautifully, the words clear, perfectly weighted, sounding not unlike Pears.  I’m not saying that it would come across so strongly in a larger theatre – it sounded to me as though he was tiring towards the end – but that isn’t the point.  It was a riveting, moving performance that, quite rightly, led to a moment’s silence at the end.

The rest were pretty good too.  The problem with Billy Budd is that people tend to cast it with young singers who aren’t always ready musically for it.  Roderick Williams still has the looks in spades to convey the youth, enthusiasm and charisma of the role combined with the vocal experience to do it musical justice.  I don’t think I’ve heard the role sung more simply before: the scene in the darbies was simply him with the thoughts coming out spontaneously, softly, effortlessly.  It’s an original, un-operatic, absolutely direct approach and I found myself listening and following as rarely before.  Again, the intimate theatre helped.

Alastair Miles was Claggart.  He sang it magnificently: the darkness of the voice is ideal and he sings the words clearly, incisively.  Vocally it’s ideal casting.  Dramatically, I was slightly less certain.  He has a slightly aristocratic figure and I wasn’t quite sure that he got the sheer vicious thuggishness of the role – having said that, the scene with the novice and with Budd himself were terrifying.  At the confrontation, the smirk on his face, as he stepped forward, goading Budd was outstanding.

Orla Phelan’s production begins in a faded 18th century room with the ship becoming part of that set, as if reminding you that this is Vere’s story.  Leslie Travers’s set is strong, though I think it might have looked a bit less cramped on a larger stage.  Within it she does not shirk the sheer brutality of life on the ship, the worry about mutiny and the fact that the officers are only just able to control the men.  She creates the images, the confrontations beautifully and let’s the work speak for itself.

The other roles are all strongly taken – Peter Savidge predictably fine as Redburn with Callum Thorpe and Adrian Clarke as Ratcliffe and Flint adroitly stressing the social differences between them and Vere.  Oliver Johnston was really good as the novice and Gavan Rang as his friend more than made his mark.  Stephen Richardson got all the cynicism and honesty of Dansker.

It’s not the easiest of operas.  I was aware during the first act that it’s long and that, probably, you could knock ten minutes from it.  The text stands up pretty well, though I have huge problems with the redemption piece at the end: it works because Britten’s music is so persuasive and powerful rather than because of the text.  Garry Walker’s conducting demonstrated the full power of it.  There were times when I think slightly faster tempi might have helped, particularly in the first half.  Elsewhere, however, he built up the climaxes and paced the confrontations as well as you could hope.  The orchestra and chorus were on their very best Ring form.

The second act  for me was one of those experiences where you simply had to let the music and production take you forward and slowly coil up to the climax at the end, watching helplessly at the tragedy and the raw honesty of the performances.  At the end, I felt wrung out, shattered as you should after this opera.  It may not quite match my memories of Graham Vick’s Scottish Opera production in the 1980s or the sheer imagination of Alden’s for ENO but this got the power of this marvellous opera and left you shaken, thoughtful and moved.  Please go.

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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.

Billy Budd at ENO

8 Jul

Everyone gets excited about the homo-erotic sub-text Billy Budd and you’d have to be pretty blind to be unaware of it.  Aside from Claggart’s admiration, the Budd/Vere duet in Act 2 strikes me as one of the finest duets of unstated gay love in opera. For me, however, what is far more interesting is the politics.  It’s an opera about oppression and the class system and the way in which human beings treat each other.  It describes the way the upper classes control the lower ones through violence and fear and where the letter of the law has to be followed even where plain justice demands the opposite result.  For me it’s a bleak, disturbing picture with nothing to suggest any redemption: I don’t think I’ve ever found myself convinced by the idea that in some way Vere is saved by Budd. He hadn’t the guts to save Budd’s life but in some way Budd’s death redeems him, so that’s alright then. It may mean more to Christians who buy the idea of redemption generally but, to me, it doesn’t work.

You rarely see a bad performance of it, but for me, the most effective ones have been those which don’t worry about creating the historic detail of what a ship in 1797 and it’s crew but concentrate on the power imbalances and the relationships – Graham Vick’s production for Scottish Opera in 1987 was a particularly brilliant way of using a unit set with some element to suggest a ship manage to make this a universal story. And I really admired David Alden’s latest ENO production ( I saw the first night on 18th June) precisely because I thought it got more or less to heart of the politics and the brutality behind the opera.

The sets are enough to suggest a ship (or possibly a submarine) – rounded wooden and metal walls, tunnel like corridors – but also suggest more.  The men are in their subterranean wooden/metallic quarters while Vere has a bright white cabin. The crew is brilliantly delineated – the bulk of the men in overalls, kept under control by different levels of police with leather uniforms and batons;  there are marines to keep guard and you feel that the main problem is not the French but keeping the men under control. Alden deals with them particularly finely in the beginning ad Act II by delineating the different ranks closel, very much as they are defined in the text.  It’s a dark, period-less setting that struck me as working really well.  Only one cavil. The curtain descends for scene changes: I found this jarring – more so than I do in Grimes. In previous performances, I’ve barely noticed the interludes as such – they are part of the drama and it’s been possible to move location fluidly without needing to drop the curtain. I remember how in Vick’s production we just looked at the bare stage varied only by subtle lighting changes as those chords come one after another following the trial scene. Here concentration faded slightly.

Alden gets some very fine performances from his cast. Matthew Rose struck me as giving a very remarkable performance as Claggart. This was an introverted, unctuous Claggart who managed to suggest better than anyone else I have seen the evil, self-loathing, nihilism of “oh beauty, happiness, goodness” – physically rolling twisted on gthe floor and making a fetish out of the neckerchief he’d taken from Billy. I thought this was among the finest Claggarts that I’ve seen. It’s good to see Kim Begley back as Vere, perhaps not so free vocally as he once was, but suggesting the intelligence and weakness of the man.

Benedict Nelson was Budd. He seems to be the ENO’s young baritone of choice at the moment.  He looks good and has the size and strength for the part; he conveys the honesty and enthusiasm of the man. He sings it well enough, but am I the only one who isn’t that excited by the sheer quality of the voice which, to my ears, sounds anonymous and without the individuality that Allen, Keenlyside and Maltman possessed when they first took on the role?  He was perfectly credible and sang his farewell affectingly but he didn’t seize the stage and the role as others have.

The support was really good. Jonathan Summers made a strong, slightly ambivalent, almost sinister, Mr Redburn – easily the most memorable performance of the role I’ve seen. Nicky Spence was a bespectacled Novice who sang really clearly. Gwynne Howells seems to have singing Dansker for as long as I’ve been seeing Budd and is really good.  The chorus were on fabulous form – precise, together and singing with real power.  There’s a particularly interesting image of them at the beginning of the last scene where they face the audience, with their mattresses like a group of refugees or prisoners, and sing that shanty straight out to us.  Diction was excellent and you barely needed the surtitles.

Edward Gardner rarely puts a foot wrong and this was up to his normal standards – clear, dramatic and kind to his singers.   Perhaps there were times when it was a bit slow – I was conscious of what a long opera it is and, at times, how slowly it moves.  But this didn’t in any way compromise one of ENO’s very finest evening.

I was left slightly shaken and depressed by the bleakness of the piece while finding that, at every visit, I get something more out of it.