Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, opus 50
Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd), Toby Spence (Edward Fairfax Vere), Brindley Sherratt (John Claggart), Thomas Oliemans (Mr. Redburn), David Soar (Mr. Flint), Torben Jürgens (Lieutenant Ratcliffe), Christopher Billet (Red Whiskers), Duncan Rock (Donald), Clive Bayley (Dansker), Sam Furness (A Novice), Francisco Vas (Squeak), Manel Esteve (Bosun), Gerardo Bullón (First Mate), Tomeu Bibiloni (Second Mate), Borja Quiza (Novice’s Friend), Jordi Casanova (Maintop), Isaac Galán (Arthur Jones), Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real de Madrid, Andrés Máspero (chorus master), Ivor Bolton (conductor), Deborah Warner (stage director), Michael Levine (set designer), Chloé Obolensky (costume designer), Jean Kalman (lighting designer), Jérémie Cuvillier (screen director)
A new production of Teatro Real in co-production with Royal Opera House (London) and Opera di Roma, Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain (September 2017) – 174’
BelAir Classiques DVD BAC154 (or Blu-ray BAC554) – HD recording – 2.0 PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital – Format 16:9 – Region Code: 0 – (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in Spanish, Italian, German and French – Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese
Teatro Real de Madrid’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd was widely praised in its 2017 premiere run in Spain, and fortunately it has been filmed for BelAir Classiques’ opera series. English stage director Deborah Warner’s focused direction, the stunning visuals and the dimensions that conductor Ivor Bolton brings to Britten’s score make this one not to miss.
The opera is based on Herman Melville’s novella, now regarded as a literary masterpiece. The ambiguities over the motives of the characters and debates continue to this day: is Billy Budd a modern morality tale of good and evil, with a subtext that explores, love, jealousy, and betrayal between the officers and conscripted sailors on a British battleship?
Britten composed the opera in 1950-1, with co-librettists E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. Britten and Forster, both gay men living in a very closeted era, leave in place Melville’s homoerotic threads that roil under the surface. In this new production, director Warner doesn’t skirt these themes either, however ambiguous. Without pause, Warner and Bolton bring clarity to the music and text.
Billy Budd arrives on the warship Indomitable in 1797, leaving his mates on the merchant ship Rights‘o Man and willing to do anything to be part of the battles against the French. He impresses the other sailors and officers with his ability, strength and earnest heart. Claggart is the self-loathing creeper who marks Billy Budd to do his bidding with more than suggestively singing about his ‘beauty.’ Later, indicating jealousy of Billy’s popularity with the other sailors, Claggart’s fascination with Billy is sinister and a private, morbid obsession. Key scenes expose his unflinching brutality and pettiness. He has The Novice seaman flogged for falling on deck, and he manipulates Squeak, his toady, to spy on his shipmates with tenors Sam Furness and Francisco Vass, respectively, turning in memorable performances as pawns in this drama.
In contrast, when Captain Vere sings “Beauty, handsomeness, coming to trial. How can I condemn him? How can I save him? My heart’s broken, my life’s broken. This is my trial.” Is it platonic love, love of band of brothers in arms or the admission of his romantic love? For Billy, his heart is full of love for all of his comrades. For Vere, there is a distinct impression that it is more emotionally complicated. In her direction and these performances, Deborah Warner succeeds in conveying fluid interpretations of this multi-layered dramaturg. Warner is also a fine physical theater director, and the depictions of the harsh conditions for these sailors manning the Indomitable impresses throughout the production.
Conductor Ivor Bolton ignites Britten’s score, the detailing and the orchestral thrust from every angle, luminous. The supporting players, and of course, the large Teatro de Madrid Choristers prove to be more than up to the tasks, giving rousing vocal and physical performances.
The film captures memorable performances led by Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd, Toby Spence as Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, and Thomas Oliemans as Mr. Redburn. Spence’s Vere is so vocally officious in the first act, making his second act emotional breakdown over the fate of Billy at his command, all of the more powerful, vocally and dramatically. Brindley Sherratt’s Claggart can make one’s skin crawl as he keeps peeling back layers of his psychological darkness and general creepiness.
Bass Clive Bayley gives a soulful performance as old salt Dansker who first warns Billy about Claggart and goes to him in the prisoner hold, bringing him food and water as he awaits execution. “All’s trouble” Dankster tells Billy, as mutiny is brewing over Billy’s sentence. But Billy accepts his fate and tells Dankster that he must stop any rebellion and support Vere. His final aria as he contemplates his death “Don’t matter now being hanged or being forgotten…I’ll stay strong… and that’s enough…” is a shattering denouement emotionally and vocally. Jacques Imbrailo’s performance as Billy Budd is simply electrifying.
The atmospherics of life on the sea on a clipper ship is conjured by the realism of the set designs by Michael Levine, with it a matrix of sail ropes, hoists on a bow and a deck that lowers and ascends over the Dante-esque sailors’ quarters. This is made more vivid and poetic by the stellar lighting designs by Jean Kalman.
This production will travel to Helsinki, London and Rome. Fortunately, it has been well directed and edited in this screen version by Jérémie Cuvillier for those who cannot experience it live.
Lewis J. Whittington