Introducing... Billy Budd
Everything you need to know about Billy Budd, which is available to watch online for free as part of Glyndebourne Open House on Sunday 12 July
In this instalment of our Introducing… series we explore Michael Grandage’s triumphant production.
Billy Budd is part of Glyndebourne Open House – a weekly series of free operas, available on YouTube.
A brief introduction:
Commissioned by the Arts Council to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951, in many ways Billy Budd is an unlikely work of celebration. There’s nothing jingoistic or triumphal about Britten second full-scale opera – a subtle psychological study of good and evil and the many human shades of grey that lie between.
Working with librettists EM Forster and Eric Crozier, Britten adapted Herman Melville’s novella into his grandest opera yet, an almost symphonic work that harnesses a large orchestra and all-male chorus to create a vast and powerful voice for the sailors of the HMS Indomitable.
At the heart of this claustrophobic community is Billy Budd, a new recruit whose innocence, goodness and beauty attract the unwelcome attention of Master-at-arms Claggart. Conflicted and tormented by the emotions the boy stirs in him, Claggart vows to destroy him. False accusations lead to violence, tragedy and ultimately death.
Britten’s score blends lyricism and moments of startling beauty with sea-shanties and sweeping orchestral textures to create one of his most heartbreaking operas.
Why not to miss it:
Hailed as “triumphant” and a “stupendous achievement” that “demands to be seen” at its 2010 premiere, Glyndebourne’s first ever production of Britten’s Billy Budd was also celebrated theatre director Michael Grandage’s operatic debut. Drawn to the EM Forster’s English-language libretto and to the sea-setting, Grandage worked with designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Paule Constable to create a striking world for the production to inhabit.
The result, according to one critic, is that you can “almost smell the rank sweat and feel the salt spray” in Oram’s “magnificently realised set” – an all-enclosing ship’s hull that seems to extend right out of the wooden interior of the Glyndebourne Opera House, trapping the audience in the claustrophobic world of an 18th-century man-of-war along with the cast.
Reviews called the show “a piece of total music theatre at its most magnificent” and “an unforgettable night of opera”.
A great moment to look out for:
At the heart of Billy Budd is the idea of silence, of the struggle to speak. Billy suffers from a stammer which, at the crucial moment, prevents him defending and explaining himself when accusations are brought against him. This affliction and frustration only adds to the pathos of this exquisite scene in Act II. Condemned to death, Billy calmly awaits his fate, soothing himself with a lullaby-like aria that flows with such easy grace – miles away from the anger and sudden violence of his earlier outburst.
Moonshine dances through the porthole in twinkling flute arpeggios, light and flickering, while underneath strings gently roll and churn – the sea beneath. Between flute gestures, Billy himself sings his lyrical aria, whose arching, arpeggio-like phrases speak of comfort and security, but whose unsettled, fragmented opening remind us that it is death, not sleep, that awaits the young man.
Cast and creative team:
Sir Mark Elder conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra (“on blazing form”) generating “overwhelming power and emotional impact” from this deeply moving score.
A starry cast is led by South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo’s “radiant” Billy – “a total joy… singing his farewell to life with immense dignity and pathos”. Bass Philip Ens (“darkly resonant”) delivers “a stand-out performance” as malevolent Master-at-arms John Claggart, “the epitome of curdled malevolence”, while John Mark Ainsley delivers “intelligent phrasing, evenness of tone and purity of line” as Captain Vere.
The strong supporting cast includes Matthew Rose, “luxury casting” as Mr Flint, and Ben Johnson as the Novice, as well as Iain Paterson and Darren Jeffery.