Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Mark Elder
Revival Director: Ian Rutherford
Captain Vere: Mark Padmore
Claggart: Brindley Sherratt
Billy Budd: Jacques Imbrailo
Benjamin Britten's centennial may have come and gone, but fortunately for New Yorkers, there is still some Britten - And what Britten! - to be had for a short while in downtown Brooklyn these days, namely a revival of The Glyndebourne Festival Opera's much acclaimed production of what many consider Britten's ultimate masterpiece: Billy Budd. I am still partial to Peter Grimes and its unmatched evocation of the mysterious North Sea, but I am totally open to get carried away by another captivating drama by the English composer.
That's why after an enjoyable but rather conventional evening at The Met with Rusalka starring Renée Fleming and Piotr Beczala earlier in the week, I found myself eagerly heading to the BAM, New York's historic temple of avant-garde art, to become acquainted with an enigmatic English opera about sadism, homo-eroticism, male bonding, political imperatives and moral quagmire with like-minded friends. What more could one hope for on a Friday night?
Inspired by Melville's novella by the same name, Billy Budd is about some kind of twisted love triangle between Billy Budd, the handsome and naive young sailor everybody loves, Claggart, the evil Master-at-Arms whose irrepressible attraction to Billy will lead to a tragic succession of events, and Captain Vere, a fundamentally good man, but unable to properly take control over a dire situation, whose unfortunate outcome will haunt him for the rest of his life. Things get murky, chaotic and confused quickly in this mess of human passions and philosophical themes. To add historical spice to the mix, this is all happening aboard a British man-of-war during the French Revolutionary wars of 1797.
It can be rightly argued that despite the opera's title, Captain Vere is the main character of the story. And tenor Mark Padmore's spot-on performance certainly did not contradict this notion, as he sang with restrained intensity and gave emotionally gripping life to Britten's phrases. Opening and closing the opera with dignified yet heart-wrenching anguish, he impersonated a strong, honorable, but ultimately weak captain, going one step too far in making his unexplained fatal decision.
As Claggart, bass Brindley Sherratt was a villain of impressive creepiness and magnetic control, his voice sounding as if it were coming straight from the bottom of a deep dark place. Impeccably proving that less can indeed be much more, his self-hatred and cruelty were as scary as they were understated. It sure takes talent to be that good at being that bad.
The drama's unwitting catalyst, Billy Budd, could be seen as a likable chap thrown in circumstances way over his head, or a Christ-like figure doomed to suffer a fate he did not deserve. In any case, baritone Jacques Imbrailo made good use of his versatile voice and engaging presence, and pretty soon the whole audience was as taken with him as his ship mates were.
The rest of the all-male cast was equally commendable regardless of the importance of their parts. There was clearly not an even remotely weak link in that well-oiled machine. The consistently excellent chorus particularly distinguished itself during the big militaristic scene at the beginning of Act II, when the crew was roused up at the prospect of sinking a French ship, to be disappointed a few moments later when the mist prevented it. The singing was sharply focused and chillingly powerful, as the men were as ready for combat as could be.
The set was another miracle of flawless efficiency essentially by being the interior of a hull, complete with decks, ropes, guns and other seafaring whatnots, with Captain Vere's private quarters coming down from the ceiling in a smooth and perfectly timed move. In an intimate Howard Gilman opera house full to the brim and subtly lighted for maximum impact, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the closed environment was unmistakably palpable and the smell of salty sweat almost discernible. With every inch of the stage put to excellent use and the singers cleverly directed with clear purposes, this riveting production was run like the tight ship it was, pun intended.
It also had the distinct advantage of unfolding to Britten's glorious score, to which The London Philharmonic Orchestra did thrilling justice. Whether we were relishing moments of meaningful minimalism or sweeping grandeur, the music was perfectly balanced and right in tune with the situation. Mark Elder conducted his brilliant musicians with urgency and finesse, and they all significantly contributed to the resounding success of this memorable Billy Budd.
On Friday night, there is no doubt that the British had definitely come and conquered.