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Ship Shape: Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Britten's Billy Budd

3 June 2010

Mark Elder
Mark Elder

Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd
Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd(Photo: Alastair Muir)

Phillip Ens as Claggert
Phillip Ens as Claggert(Photo: Alastair Muir)

Lynne Walker talks to conductor Sir Mark Elder as he conducts his 100th opera – Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

When Sir Mark Elder stepped into the pit to open the 76th Glyndebourne Festival, with its first ever staging of Britten’s Billy Budd, it was the one hundredth opera he has conducted.

In contrast, this is the first time that one of Britain’s most charismatic actors and theatre directors, Michael Grandage, has applied himself to opera. 

For Grandage – who has been responsible for award-winning hits both as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse and in London’s West End as well as on Broadway (Hamlet, 2009; Frost/Nixon, 2007) – Budd represents the fulfilment of a long ambition to make his operatic debut.

Switching from non-lyric theatre to directing opera in such a high-profile house must have been a daunting prospect. After all, Grandage’s award-winning Guys and Dolls and Evita hardly seem relevant preparation for Billy Budd – or for Madame Butterfly, with which he makes his Houston Grand Opera debut later this year. But music has always played a central role in Grandage’s theatre productions.

Besides, it’s widely accepted that opera and theatre are no longer locked in different boxes. Directors such as Nicholas Hytner, Phyllida Lloyd, Adrian Noble and Katie Mitchell in the UK and many more in Europe and the US, move comfortably between the two forms. Indeed, Oscar-winning theatre director Sam Mendes was to have made his opera debut later in the 2010 Glyndebourne season with Don Giovanni but had to pull out because of his commitment to the transatlantic Bridge Project.

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, recently went so far as to assert that opera directors do not necessarily make the greatest opera directors. In his experience the greatest chance of success comes from hiring theatre directors who do very little opera but “have a sophisticated appreciation of the music’s demands”. Fees for directing opera are generally smaller, he adds, so directors only tackle projects they are excited about and find intellectually and creatively challenging.

Grandage’s theatrical experience has meant that he has been able to respond to the sharply defined psychological portraits and riven conflicts at the heart of Billy Budd, and the task of distinguishing between, but also reconciling, the separate worlds of the action.

Based on Herman Melville’s allegorical tale about the battle between goodness and malignity on board a man-of-war, to a libretto co-written by E.M. Forster, the opera revolves around the cross-currents of justice, duty and compassion.

Billy Budd, received somewhat coolly at its premiere at Covent Garden in 1951, is a continuation of themes Britten had explored in Peter Grimes (Sadler’s Wells, 1945) and Albert Herring (Glyndebourne, 1947). A tale of innocence destroyed, of good crushed by evil and of an ‘outsider’ against society was always likely to appeal to the composer. Captain Vere recalls – and the opera, performed at Glyndebourne in its revised two-act version, enacts – a bygone event. He was obliged to sacrifice the stammering, foretopman Billy Budd, whose only crime was to have aroused, through his handsome looks and good nature, the envy and spite of the villainous Master at Arms, Claggart. Although Billy is the opera’s hero, the work focuses on the moral dilemma facing the philosopher-captain, Vere. That decision between heart and head – saving Billy or doing his duty – is a theme further explored by Britten in Gloriana.

“You could say that Billy Budd was Britten’s most perfect achievement in that the nature of the subject appealed to him very profoundly,” says Mark Elder. “Combined with the experience he had gained previously writing for the stage meant that Budd represented a synthesis of his ability as a composer and his ability to write specifically theatrical music.”

For Elder the biggest challenge is “to make the opera eloquent, to find as much as I can in the music and to make the performers feel it, not just do it. The atmosphere and acoustic of Glyndebourne’s theatre are very special and big scenes in large operas – such as the choral shanties in Budd – can have a knock-out effect there.”

In its juxtaposition of the internal and the public, the personal dramas of Billy, Claggart and Vere, and the everyday life on board ship there’s a Verdian quality heightened by the richness and variety of the music. The score calls for the largest orchestra of any Britten opera. Yet, according to Elder, there’s a leanness in the writing that allows the complex musical, as well as dramatic, relationships within this large group of characters to evolve in a natural way.

“In some ways it’s very delicate and Britten’s experience with chamber opera is very telling in the transparent soundworld he conceives. He asks for all these instruments – including four flutes, four trumpets and six percussionists as well as alto saxophone – not in order to make a noise but to give him sufficient colour possibilities to support and illuminate and heighten the words.”

What about the most enigmatic passage in the score when, after the drumhead court martial, Vere has to convey the death sentence to Billy? The stage is empty and in a brief interlude the orchestra plays 34 slow chords, ‘the Interview Chords’. “We know that Vere has to confront Budd with the unalterable decision about his death sentence in the knowledge that he is innocent,” says Elder. “Britten’s extraordinary imagination and theatrical sense produced this long series of common chords that start so loud but gradually dissolve. They convey so many things: not so much a conversation as lack of it between two men, one so powerless, one so powerful. The chords’ ambiguity and the emotional impact they can have in the theatre suggests there’s something deliberately impenetrable about the situation.”

“There’s no doubt, also, that Britten wanted an extensive range of instrumental colour to compensate for the absence of women’s or boys’ voices in the score. Those eerie opening notes, for instance, thin, drifting high notes, or, later, a fast tempo articulated by the brightness of piccolos and flutes and very high trumpet writing. It’s as if he were saying ‘I’m not going to be able to get right up there with the voices so the orchestra had better scale these incredible heights.’ He was also brilliant at plumbing the deeps of the sea and the depths of misery and pain, creating haunting, ominous, menacing effects. How you add lightness and shade to the palette depends on the casting, I think. The role of Budd requires a particular type of voice and I’m delighted that we have the young South African baritone, Jacques Imbrailo.”

Imbrailo is a former Jette Parker Young Artist of the Royal Opera House and winner of the Audience Prize at the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World.  John Mark Ainsley makes his first UK appearance as Captain Vere and the Canadian bass Phillip Ens sings Claggart (a role he has previously sung in Cardiff, San Francisco and Munich).

Britten wrote a lot of detail into the score, revealing visual as well as musical ideas and Elder believes it’s crucial that any director is sensitive to that. “We know that Budd can be open to interpretation on dry land. Richard Jones has shown us that by setting the story entirely in a naval academy rather than on HMS Indomitable. But Michael is very aware that, as well as telling a story, he has to allow for something beyond the events of the narrative to be created.”

The set for Glyndebourne’s staging of the ship’s harsh, claustrophobic environment picks up on the opera house’s wood-panelled auditorium, with its ship-like bulkheads of curving seating. The effect makes the audience feel implicated in the action of the opera.

The designer is Grandage’s regular collaborator Christopher Oram, who has a reputation for atmospheric, unfussy work. His previous forays into opera include designing the costumes for Kenneth Branagh’s film of The Magic Flute. The Grandage-Oram strategy is to pare things down to a minimum with, according to Oram, a firm belief in “set, lighting and sound being completely symbiotic”.

“Our production,” comments Elder, “takes place on a recognisable ship, a structure allowing us levels of variety corresponding to the essential nature of each scene – captain’s cabin, the men lower down in hammocks – and it works beautifully. Maybe we can convey the feeling that everyone is indomitably there on that ship …”

A printed version of this article appeared in the May/June issue of Opera Now. Click here to order your copy online.


World Premiere - Before Night Falls at Fort Worth Opera

31 May 2010, Texas, USA

Wes Mason as Reinaldo Arenas in the world premiere of 'Before Night Falls'
Wes Mason as Reinaldo Arenas in the world premiere of 'Before Night Falls'(Photo: Fort Worth Opera)

Opera Now correspondent, Chris Shull, attended the opening night of Jorge Martín's Before Night Falls at the 2010 Fort Worth Opera Festival and writes:

"The new opera Before Night Falls by Cuban-American composer Jorge Martín, based on the impassioned memoir of gay Cuban dissident poet Reinaldo Arenas, was enthusiastically received at its world premiere on Saturday 29 May at Fort Worth Opera in Texas.

"But an evocative score setting traditional Cuban dances alongside accessible contemporary sounds - and a deeply-felt performance by a committed young cast - could not overcome a libretto that traced only surface emotions."

Chris Shull's full review of Before Night Falls will be published in the September/October issue of Opera Now. 


BBC Radio 3 presents five essays about opera

31 May 2010, London, UK

Michael Chance
Michael Chance(Photo: Gerald Place)

The BBC’s major new series, A Passion For Opera, continues on BBC Radio 3 this week with five 15-minute essays written and narrated by eminent figures from the world of opera, broadcast daily at 23:00 BST.

Opera Now readers should already be very familiar with three names on the roster: Opera Now Editor-in-Chief, Ashutosh Khandekar, and Contributing Editors, Tom Sutcliffe and Robert Thicknesse.

The series also features English countertenor, Michael Chance, and Matt Peacock, Chief Executive of the London-based community arts initiative, Streetwise Opera.

Each speaker will explore a different aspect of their experience of opera, beginning tonight with Tom Sutcliffe speaking about the paradoxically intimate quality of this spectacular multimedia art form.

Tomorrow’s broadcast by Matt Peacock’s looks at the potentially life-changing social impact of opera, while on Wednesday Robert Thicknesse will reveal why he has become disillusioned with some aspects of the opera world.

Ashutosh Khandekar’s personal account of his early experiences of opera on Thursday and Michael Chance’s ‘confessions of a long distance opera singer’ on Friday bring the week to a close.

Each of the essays will be available via the BBC’s ‘Listen Again’ facility for 7 days after broadcast.


London's Opera Holland Park 2010

27 May 2010, London, UK

Michael Volpe
Michael Volpe

Commentary by Opera Holland Park General Manager, Michael Volpe

“Opera is a buzz word at the moment, and the media in the UK have jumped on the bandwagon with enthusiasm: the BBC have a special focus on opera through the summer, (though anyone who saw rival channel ITV’s attempt to get into the classical music groove could have easily thought it had all been dreamt up during a particularly unfocused session down the pub). Meanwhile, there are productions opening in droves in the first week of June across the UK as the summer season gets under way.

“Here at Opera Holland Park, in one of Central London’s finest stretches of green, unspoilt nature, we find ourselves pitching headlong into another season with trepidation, unbounded enthusiasm and, as is ever more frequently the case, nerves of steel.

“Our final two shows would be a challenge to the biggest companies in the world: Francesca da Rimini certainly fulfils the stereotype of the giovane scuola opera by having a cast of thousands – and all of them with a line to sing. Not that our two season openers (Pelléas et Mélisande and Carmen) can be described as a walk in the park either.

“Meanwhile, we don’t often do revivals but Oliver Fuchs' production of Fidelio was a massive success in 2003, and the time seems absolutely right to unleash it on the London audience again.

“All in all, we’ve got a particularly brilliant season in prospect, with a huge variety of work and a strong thread joining the first and final productions.

“And just in case you’re worried about what all this might do to your holiday spending money, we are tossing £10 seats tickets around like confetti  as well as offering free seats to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to come to an opera. Speaking of which, our new INSPIRE Project, bringing awareness to new audiences, is in overdrive at present; we do all of this and still find time to plan the 2012 Season.

“I’m looking forward to so many aspects of the 2010 Season which, after so long in this job, can only be a good sign. I still love being in our space as well – OHP’s theatre one of the most beautiful structures in the capital in my humble opinion.”

The July/August issue of Opera Now will include a preview of Francesca da Rimini, featuring an interview with conductor, Philip Thomas.


Royal Danish Opera appoints new artistic director

24 May 2010

Keith Warner
Keith Warner(Photo: Caspar Balslev)

British director Keith Warner has been appointed as the new artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, succeeding Kasper Holton, who has held the post since 1999.

Warner’s tenure will begin in August 2011, but he will start work immediately as a consultant to advise the company on repertoire decisions for future seasons.
Described as an “artistic beacon” by Erik Jacobson, Director of the Royal Danish Theatre, Warner was unanimously selected by the hiring committee from a list of 47 candidates.  He has previously directed Don Giovanni (2006) and Wozzeck (2008) for the Royal Danish Opera.

Opera Now Contributing Editor, Tom Sutcliffe, who has worked with Warner on several past productions believes that “this appointment reflects genuine confidence in Keith’s knowledge of the whole repertoire and his supreme professionalism. But also there is no question that many of his productions are simply first rate – that he is a modern director who has interesting things to say about the operas he's staging, but also who wants those operas to come alive in their own terms not to be changed into something they never expected to be and often cannot be.”

The Chairman of the Board of Royal Danish Opera, Lars Pallesen, certainly hopes that Warner’s appointment will help “to establish the company in the international elite”, but, says Sutcliffe, “Copenhagen is not going to change radically” under Warner’s leadership: “It is constrained by the fact that it is a national company setting the tone in a small nation of around 5 million people. The casting and the company are being subsidised by the Danish taxpayer to be identifiably Danish.”

On the other hand, Sutcliffe concedes that “having a Brit as artistic director (for the second time – Elaine Padmore was also there from 1993-9) is a gesture towards the international in standards and aspirations that does not undermine the company’s Danishness to any great extent.” 

Pointing to the fact that Warner is one of the only British directors to have worked successfully in Bayreuth whilst also being “a believer in the popularisation of opera”, Sutcliffe says that his approach is characterized by some “very special qualities”: he is a “generous collaborator” with “considerable judgment and competence about casting”, plus “the sort of man who does work for almost no money when he believes in the cause. And above all he is fun to be with.”


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