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Music Pages

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.


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