Billy Budd is a great masterpiece… Sad that Covent Garden hasn’t put it on for 20 years but even sadder that it could, and should, have been so much better
Royal Opera House, London Until May 10
In opera, comparisons, however odious, have to be made. On that basis, for the past four decades every new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has lain under the shadow of Sir Peter Hall’s brilliant Glyndebourne show.
And in recent years, Michael Grandage’s magnificent recreation of a 74-gun ship of the line in action in 1797 has set a high bar for realising the composer’s intentions, and providing a credible backdrop to the unfolding tragedy of Billy Budd.
A high bar that director Deborah Warner and her team trip over from the very start.
Above deck, Captain Vere’s supporting officers are mere ciphers. Below deck it’s better, with Jacques Imbrailo reprising his compelling Billy Budd from the Glyndebourne show
The aged Captain Vere, in retirement and consumed by self-hate over letting Budd die, appears here, as portrayed by Toby Spence, to be still a young man.
And he looks even younger when the real action begins. It’s a committed portrayal of a principled man, but never for one moment does Spence suggest he is the tough, seasoned commander his men so revere. More an angst-ridden curate.
Similarly, Brindley Sherratt’s Claggart never conveys the pure evil Britten intended. Instead, he seems no more than an annoying jobsworth. Above deck, Vere’s supporting officers are mere ciphers – mainly Britten’s fault, of course.
Below deck it’s better, with Jacques Imbrailo reprising his compelling Budd from the Glyndebourne show, well supported by Sam Furness’s Novice, and Clive Bayley’s typically persuasive old Dansker.
In the pit, Ivor Bolton never throws off the impression that he is a baroque specialist playing out of position. But the principal failings lie with Warner and her set designer, Michael Levine.
The ship goes into action without a cannon in sight. Are they banned because Warner does not approve of weaponry? Or is it sheer clumsiness, where the sailors line up throwing ammunition bags around like a children’s game of pass the parcel?
Or maybe it’s her concept of the ship being a prison – a statement of the bleeding obvious if ever there was one.
The set looks more like a warehouse than a warship, and obviously made for a much smaller stage on one of this show’s previous stops in Madrid and Rome.
The costumes, too, are a mess, with the non-commissioned officers looking like Guantanamo Bay prison guards.
Billy Budd is a great masterpiece. Sad that Covent Garden hasn’t put it on for 20 years. Even sadder that it could, and should, have been so much better.