Billy Budd | Opera review

Glyndebourne

Michael Grandage makes his first directorial foray into opera with one of Britten's greatest achievements. In the Glyndebourne programme, Grandage emphasises that he was keen to make his debut with a work in English, and that because he grew up by the sea, Billy Budd, with its richness of dramatic and music texture, became his choice.

Yet one of the curiosities of Grandage's generally fine production is how little sense of the sea it really suggests. The claustrophobia and cruelty of life on a British man o'war at the end of the 18th century is certainly projected vividly through Christopher Oram's massive set – a proscenium-filling cross-section through the decks of the ship – and through Grandage's brilliantly detailed direction of the chorus and cast. But for all the hammocks, cannons and ropes, the contrast between life below decks and life above is never there – there's nothing of Billy Budd's working life as a foretopman, for instance, or his death hanging from the yardarm, and little sense of the surrounding sea when Captain Vere takes charge of the attack on a French ship in the second act.

The drama depends on the three central roles. Jacques Imbrailo's Billy is a total joy – slight, lithe and wonderfully guileless, singing his farewell to life with immense dignity and pathos. Phillip Ens's John Claggart is the epitome of curdled malevolence, but the tone is just a little too ugly, the weighting of the words sometimes not precise enough. As Vere, though, John Mark Ainsley is much more problematic. His Vere is never an assertive figure, so it's hard to understand why his crew revere him, and his refusal to intervene when Billy is condemned to death seems like more of the same passivity. It's a strange portrayal from a very fine artist, especially in the context of so much that is superbly presented.

The remorseless inhumanity of the story is certainly vivid, both on stage and in Mark Elder's account of the score, by turns luminous and scaldingly intense. Elder does not neglect a single detail of what is perhaps Britten's greatest orchestral accomplishment, and both the playing of the London Philharmonic and the singing of the Glyndebourne chorus have marvellous presence. The smaller roles are uniformly well taken, with Jeremy White as Dansker, Ben Johnson as the Novice and Matthew Rose, Iain Paterson and Darren Jeffery as the three officers all outstanding.

In rep until 27 June. Box office: 01273 813813.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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