Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Billy Budd @ Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes

10, 12, 15, 17, 20, 22, 25, August 2013


Glyndebourne (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

Michael Grandage’s production is every bit as stupendous as I described it in 2010 despite a few cast changes and a slightly different interpretation of the main character’s (that is, Vere’s) sensibility.  No one who sees this staging will ever forget that wonderful moment when the ‘Indomitable’ seems to set sail, taking Vere’s terrible burden with it, out onto the infinite sea; that sea of course a constant, albeit unseen presence, along with the solid-seeming yet fragile ship which imprisons both men and officers in an anxious togetherness.

Jacques Imbrailo repeats his gold standard Billy; alluring, sensitive to the point of rawness, and with just enough swagger to give an edge to his goodness. His eve-of-execution aria was delivered in tones of melting sweetness, the sotto voce utterances received by an audience which seemed to be holding its collective breath. If you can sit through that without a sniffle then you are made of very strong stuff.

Jeremy White’s Dansker was another familiar face from 2010, the nobility of character brought out in every phrase, in every line and action giving an object lesson in how a director and a genuine singing actor can bring an interpretation to life. Darren Jeffery’s Ratcliffe, Colin Judson’s Squeak and Alasdair Elliott’s Red Whiskers all repeated their fine 2010 performances, and Peter Gjsbertsen, Maintop last time, here contributed a beautifully sung, convincingly acted Novice.

Mark Padmore’s Vere is a totally different commander to the captain created by John Mark Ainsley in 2010. Where Ainsley presented a bitter, bowed old man at the beginning, his words ‘…commanded the Indomitable’ so freighted with the irony of his own lack of command, and of not himself being indomitable, Padmore is a matter-of-fact narrator; where Ainsley made Vere’s final reflections on how he has finally been forgiven, into a poetic, almost ecstatic episode, Padmore seems to reflect more anger against himself and the whole system of justice onboard a ship at war. Vocally, Padmore’s tone is beefier, yet the very highest notes find him strained; there’s no doubting his fervent commitment to the role, however, and later performances may well find those notes more securely in place.

Brindley Sherratt was making his role debut as Claggart, singing with incisive phrasing and glowering menace; his paean to beauty can seldom have sounded so threatening. The main cast was completed by Stephen Gadd’s forthright Mr Redburn and David Soar’s conflicted Mr Flint. The Glyndebourne Chorus has never sounded so magnificent; Jeremy Bines made the scene where the ‘Indomitable’ finally has ‘all hands on deck’ to confront the French, a monumental testimony to the power of a group of voices superbly trained and working in absolute harmony.

Andrew Davis conducts a somewhat less impassioned reading of the orchestral score than Mark Elder, although he dwells lovingly on the more intimate and poetic moments. Christopher Oram’s set is a familiar joy; the decks which seem to make the whole auditorium part of the ship, the simple yet effective creation of the Captain’s quarters and the sense of claustrophobia created by so many men living in such close proximity are all finely achieved, and Paule Constable, the most painterly of lighting designers, evokes a sea-world of mist and intermittent sunshine which perfectly captures every turn in the drama.

This is the final production of Vladimir Jurowski’s last season as Glyndebourne’s Music Director; no better tribute could be imagined, and if you haven’t booked to see it, there are still a very few seats left on August 15th, 17th and 22nd.

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