By: David Sheward
Too many opera productions emphasize the beauty of the music and the voices, not the truth of the story that contains them. Michael Grandage’s magnificent staging of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 Billy Budd for the Glyndebourne Festival, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a too brief stay, certainly delivers a lush performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the sensitive hand of Sir Mark Elder. But it also places the audience right in the belly of Herman Melville’s heartrending drama of men at sea torn between duty and justice.
The opera opens with the brilliant Mark Padmore standing in a single spotlight amid darkness, as the tormented Captain Vere recalling the events of 1797 aboard his ship the Indomitable. Then Paule Constable’s painterly lighting reveals Christopher Oram’s massive set re-creating the oppressive atmosphere of the vessel. There is no sky or sea visible, and an ominous wooden ceiling is lowered during the scenes taking place below decks, creating an even more claustrophobic atmosphere. Oram’s prison-like design and Grandage’s muscular direction perfectly convey the hothouse setting, which produces the opera’s tragic events. Handsome, kindhearted new recruit Billy Budd is beloved by all his shipmates and the officers, but not by the sadistic Master-at-Arms Claggart, who makes it his mission to destroy the angelic Billy. Many scholars have found a homoerotic subtext in Claggart’s fixation on Billy. Grandage wisely hints at it, but does not overplay this explosive connection. When Billy accidentally kills the twisted Claggart, Capt. Vere must chose between his strict maritime code and compassion.
Grandage’s thrilling staging puts us right in the hold with the struggling sailors and above decks with their conflicted officers. The exciting battle sequence featuring the entire crew, a huge cast including several small boys playing "powder monkeys" bringing up the fuel for a brace of canons, is as blood-quickening as any shoot-’em-up Hollywood action movie.
Jacques Imbrailo delivers an intense, layered performance as the title character, dramatically and vocally. His light, soaring baritone channels Billy’s innate sweetness and joy for life in his earlier arias as well as the soft, sad acceptance of the young sailor’s execution for murdering Claggart. Brindley Sherratt’s dark-as-Darth-Vader bass is the ideal instrument to give life to the obsessive Master-at-Arms. His delivery of Claggart’s solo explaining why Claggart hates Billy is truly frightening. But the real heart of the production is Padmore’s Vere. The tenor pours the warring emotions of the tormented commander into the demanding role. What could easily have been melodrama becomes a painful journey of an intelligent, moral man seeking the correct path in a dangerous, cruel world (the libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier often describes the ship as a microcosm of the entire universe).
There is also admirable work by Jeremy White as the wise old salt Dansker, Peter Gijsbertsen as the spineless Novice, and Stephen Gad and Darren Jeffrey as two of Vere’s gung-ho officers.
This stunning production is an example of the power of opera, but unfortunately it is playing BAM for only a few more performances. So, hurry before this ship sails
Feb. 7-13. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY. Fri, Sun, Tue, Thu, 7:30pm. Running time 3 hours, including intermission. $30-185. (718) 636-4100.www.bam.org
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith