Classical and Opera Reviews

Billy Budd @ Royal Opera House, London

23, 29 April, 2, 7, 10 May 2019


Billy Budd

(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

I am an old man…‘ no you’re not, Edward Fairfax Vere, you’re in your forties and you still look about 23 – the wispy chap crouched on the floor on the other side of the stage is decrepit, but what’s the point of this? One assumes it’s about distance, since this production steers well away from what another Vere has called “…the feeling that you can never really get far away enough from each other” in favour of broad expanses of cool grey and enough space to dance a quadrille in the officers’ quarters. Mind the bath, though.

Benjamin Britten’s grand opera, with a larger orchestra than any other of his works save the War Requiem, takes as its theme the destruction of innocence by the enmity of others, and in this area Deborah Warner’s mostly straightforward production succeeds, greatly assisted by some superb singing and the sympathetic, evocative playing of the ROH orchestra under the sensitive direction of Ivor Bolton.

Jacques Imbrailo has the ideal combination of poetic good looks and rugged athleticism to add to his fluent, finely phrased singing, and he captured to perfection what Forster defined as “…the goodness of the  glowing aggressive sort which cannot exist until it has evil to consume” (Aspects of the Novel). ‘Billy in the Darbies’ was sincerely moving, the gentle yet crystal clear voice in unison with some ethereal playing from the pit.

That evil was brilliantly captured by Brindley Sherratt’s Claggart: ‘Let him crawl‘ sent shivers down the spine, and ‘O Beauty, O Handsomeness’ was sung with gripping intensity.  That menacing sense of what Forster called “…love constricted, perverted, poisoned…” was strongly present throughout the monologue, and as with all great Claggarts you could not help thinking of Shakespeare’s Iago, with his recognition of Othello’s quality – ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.’

‘Starry Vere’ is one of Britten’s most complex operatic creations, and the ambivalence of the characterization with its demanding vocal line has defeated lesser men than Toby Spence, whose aristocratic hauteur and elegant diction make him well suited to the part. He was not quite in his best voice on this first night, with some lines a little fragile, but he did all he could with the production’s concept of him as a rather effete commander, yet still convincing us of what Britten called “the quality of conflict in Vere’s mind.” 

Jacques Imbrailo

Jacques Imbrailo
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The ROH chorus yet again covered itself in glory. It’s fairly certain that these singers do not have an experience well known to many of us, that of cowering whilst the Chorus Master shrieks ‘Individual voices! I can hear in-di-vid-ual voi-ces!’ but it’s equally clear that there are some really great singers here, and they are moulded into a stupendously coherent whole by William Spaulding. Whether joyously voicing enthusiasm for the coming adventure or threateningly muttering in dismay at Billy’s fate, this was truly outstanding work from a chorus at the top of its form.

Casting of the minor parts was strong, although most could have done with a bit more in the way of direction. Clive Bayley’s Dansker provided this great singing actor with a pleasant role in contrast to the thorough nasties he often plays, and as always he sang finely and gave the character his all, but the production did little to let us into this warm yet restrained man’s heart. Thomas Oliemans, Peter Kellner and David Soar all sang their hearts out as Redburn, Ratcliffe and Flint respectively, but again their characters were barely sketched.

Duncan Rock was ideally cast as Donald, and Christopher Gillett was an outstanding Red Whiskers. Alun Ewing was a finely drawn Bosun, Alasdair Elliott a most convincingly mendacious Squeak, and both Konu Kim as Maintop and Dominic Sedgwick as the Novice’s friend, made their mark. Dominic won the Audience Prize at the Grange International Singing Competition in 2017, and Sam Furness, making his ROH debut as Novice, was amongst the finalists – Sam’s was an impressive performance in this difficult role.  

Jean Kalman’s lighting was beautifully judged, the limpid air of morning as suggestive as the looming approach of night. The sense of the immensity of the ocean was almost entirely in the hands of the lighting in this production, and it was most effectively done. Michael Levine’s sets are simple, elegant and sparse, but they often lack the intimacy needed for fraught or delicate exchanges. Chloé Obolensky’s costume designs had clearly been dictated by the ‘modern dress’ of the production style, and although these worked for the lower ranks, it was difficult to see why the Officers dress was so – well – sloppy. Kim Brandstrup’s choreography made the most of the wide spaces of the stage as well as suggesting the threatening quality of large groups of men.

There are only four more performances of this direct, mostly ‘concept-free’ production, and in spite of some reservations about indefinite characterization and lack of much of a ‘feel’ of a great battleship, this ‘HMS Indomitable’ is a ship worth sailing on. It’s inevitable that at some time in the near future, it will be thought necessary to stage this work on a nuclear plant, with a chavvy Billy, a tattooed Claggart and a bald, plump Vere – whilst the lower ranks sport combats and do their rigging jigs with AK 47s. Enjoy this one while you can.


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