Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Imbrailo, center, as Billy in Glyndebourne Opera's revival of Grandage's Billy Budd staging
© Richard Hubert Smith 2013
Designed by his regular associate Christopher Oram, Michael Grandage's debut opera production, Billy Budd, was a significant success for Glyndebourne when it had its premiere in 2010 — an event that coincidentally represented the festival's initial shot at Britten's adaptation of the Melville novella. On its first return (seen Aug. 10) as part of Glyndebourne's contribution to the composer's centenary (a new Rape of Lucretia, to be staged by Fiona Shaw, also features in the autumn tour), it once again made a strong impression with its cogency and sharpness of realistic detail; indeed, this time around, two cast replacements seemed to have strengthened it further.
Tenor Mark Padmore took over the ambivalent role of Captain Vere, the audience's main contact point with the piece — though one whose attitudes and decisions necessarily seem distant and flawed to modern audiences, as they presumably did in 1951, when Britten's collaboration with the distinguished novelist E. M. Forster was unveiled. In particular, Vere's abnegation of moral (as opposed to legal) responsibility in allowing Billy to hang for accidentally causing the death of the brutal Claggart diminishes him in the audience's eyes, while also rendering him more complex and enigmatic as a character.
Padmore's long experience with the composer — he is a distinguished interpreter of Britten's songs, and indeed of the song and lieder repertory generally — gave him an advantage in conveying the role's subtle nuances as delineated in the text, as well as in the inwardness of the monologues in which Vere peers deep within himself to try to fathom the significance of his own experience. Every word made its mark, while Padmore's taut, wiry tenor displayed a wide range of mottled, ambiguous colors — even if it lacks the ideal weight and cutting edge for the more public pronouncements of a naval commander apparently respected by all on board.
New to Claggart was Brindley Sherratt, one of the U.K.'s leading basses. While some singers of the role falter when the vocal line goes low — as it regularly does in a character-defining phrase that is repeated several times — Sherratt maintained throughout the same inky black, enriched tone. His ample voice, purposefully targeting words and notes simultaneously, matched a heavy presence that seemed to encapsulate a semi-demonic being that contained, nevertheless, a tragically self-lacerated human heart. Similarly, South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo, whose assumption of the title role back in 2010 brought him to wide attention, once again managed the feat of presenting Billy as three-dimensionally human while also suggesting someone intrinsically touched by divine grace. His rangy, healthy voice sounded firm, centered and ringing clear.
All of the secondary roles — Stephen Gadd's Mr. Redburn, Darren Jeffery's Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Jeremy White's Dansker, Peter Gijsbertsen's Novice and the rest — were individually finely done and expertly fitted into the grander picture, which felt even sharper than before. As physically busy during the show as they were musically thrilling, the Glyndebourne Chorus had one of its great evenings as the crew of HMS Indomitable. An accomplished conductor of his native repertoire, Andrew Davis challenged the London Philharmonic Orchestra to give of its best, and the players responded with alacrity.
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