BWW Review: BILLY BUDD, Royal Opera House
Submerged in nautical gloom, the Billy Budd of Benjamin Britten is a nihilistic 20th-century opera; one of the extremely few works in the repertoire that might - in its dusky, lugubrious shade - appear better on celluloid in a black-and-white film than on stage. One envisages what Sergei Eisenstein, director of Battleship Potemkin, might have featured in a movie with the score and plot.
A director might be beleaguered with the limits of the dreary narrative and backdrop: a young, naïve sailor with a stammer being framed and ousted by the ship's master-at-arms for his innocuous, affectionate "odd duck" demeanour. The stage can only contain so many objects and so much decoration.
While Deborah Warner (staging the first production of Britten's all-male work at Covent Garden for nearly two decades) fills it to the brim with halyards, hammocks and black poles that constitute a prison-like structure, she also pays attention to detail. The setting - though stubbornly persistently dim - alternates between different shades of fog, day and night, going from navy to smoky grey, olive green to sepia and back again.
Although there are elements that seem too ostentatious - such as the facet of an old man lying at the side to represent the aged Captain Vere in the work's epilogue, because the tenor has to sing of a flash-forward to the present day - in general the visualisation deftly transfers the grim work to the stage.
Given the libretto's incessant references to endless, slave-like toil and squalor, little more can be demanded from the hands of a director than a minimalist, dreary set. Warner's staging serves not only to encapsulate the ambience that Britten doubtlessly intended to convey, it vivifies the at times skeletal and acrimonious, bleak orchestration of the score.
Possessing an inarguable air of nobility, Toby Spence's repentant Captain Edward Fairfax Vere lends the protagonist the authoritative rhythms of a man of his station, whilst simultaneously offering him significant rubato: creativity with the note lengths and musical punctuation. The latter helps identify the captain as a vulnerable, fallible human being; a great contrast to the characters of Claggart, Flint and Redburn.
With a subtle, diminuendo emphasis on consonants, the pathos is noteworthy in his prayer - "O God, grant me light to guide us, to guide us all!" - even though Spence struggles with some notes in the high register. Certain typically unexpected 20th-century vocal intervals turn into slides and struggles to leap from a low to a high note - such as in Vere's Act 2 lament, "My heart's broken, my life's broken" after Budd strikes and kills Claggart.
With more security in the scarce faster sections, Spence could lend his realisation of leadership being threatened by sympathy a little more credence.
Unfazed by the challenge of stammering in song in the title role, Jacques Imbrailo's Billy Budd incarnates the wronged but not angry young man with eccentric physicality, at times forfeiting anticipated vocal timidity for louder, bombastic notes that indicate his absence of self-awareness.
Scales across the emphasis on "foundling" in the first act are well executed, even when some moments of vocalisation accentuate suffering to the extent that pitch is fractionally compromised - such as in his dying hour, when Budd fears facing his impending execution "on an empty stomach". The plaintive diminuendi in "Roll me over fair" nonetheless lend his character an extremely pitiable aura.
Bass Brindley Sherratt makes potently intimidating use of the lowest pit of his bass register as the sadistic master-at-arms John Claggart; the growl-like, contemptuous sounds as he sings "With hate and envy I am stronger than love" echo the inhumane creed of a Pol Pot.
There are occasional difficulties of execution in the higher section of his range, with emphases in words such as "I, John Claggert" in the head voice coming out overly feebly, along with the vocally wavering, defamatory observation of Billy Budd's "infamous creed of Man" in the second act. Most of the time, however, the portrayal of the authoritarian is a petrifying one.
Sailing master Mr. Flint is purportedly given no human interface in the relentlessly powerful instrument of bass-baritone David Soar, whose complaints of "diseased, hungry grumblers" in the first act are performed in an exquisitely hasty, intolerably dismissive fashion. Throughout his vocally well-sustained embodiment, we are presented with a domineering, self-satisfying autocrat who never slips into the realm of an insipid caricature.
In the role of Mr. Redburn, a lieutenant, baritone Thomas Oliemans has a clean-cut command of scales in his and Flint's duet about their dislike of the French, sating his character with the emboldened middle of his register. Bass Peter Kellner makes expert use of vibrato in his role as Lieutenant Ratcliffe to suggest self-announcement compromised by the duty to respect and be subservient to his superiors.
Most notable is tenor Sam Furness in his pivotal (albeit not exactly colossal) role as the Novice. The fledgling who sells his soul to ambush Billy Budd out of fear of Claggart is rendered almost sympathetic by the tremulous and yet accurate fashion with which Furness sings of the "floggings and the lashings" he endures as a sailor, using diminuendo and vibrato to suggest total frailty as a sad paradox to a man of his vigour and age.
Bass Clive Bayley is likewise impressive in his role as Dansker, seemingly Billy Budd's sole true supporter. Bending his vowels to sing in a strong northern accent, Bayley makes impressive use of both particular pronunciation and tempi to lend his character a sense of frustration, fatigue and yet at the same time protectiveness.
At the baton of Ivor Bolton, the orchestra too often falls short of cohesion - enacting, in spite of itself, the very mutiny of which Billy Budd is falsely accused. With squawks emerging from the brass, as well as unkempt woodwind and persistent sour tone across the strings, it forces the audience to suspend disbelief that the enforced discipline among the plot's sailors can be easily undermined by the chaos alive in the pit.
Overall, nevertheless, the staging works meticulously hand-in-hand together with the cast to execute a solid, well-prepared interpretation of the opera; one that palpably conveys the existentialistic ruminations not just spoken by its characters, but buried in the eerie intervals of Britten's sombre score.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore