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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Opera Review: The Road to Melville

Glyndebourne's Billy Budd sails to BAM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Captain Vere (Mark Padmore, left) confronts Billy (Jacques Imbralio) and Claggart (Brindley Sherratt)
in Act II of Billy Budd. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith © 2013 The Glyndebourne Festival.
Benjamin Britten's 1951 opera Billy Budd is one of the composer's most powerful, and challenging creations. Based on the novella by Herman Melville and set to a libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, a performance requires a top-flight orchestra, crack choral singing and a compelling set of leads to bring Herman Melville's novella of life in the British Royal Navy in 1799 to vivid life. Finally, the naval action must look and feel convincing, or the production will simply sink.



Michael Grandage's production meets all of those requirements This show, first seen at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2010 and revived in time for the composer's centennial last summer, made  its U.S. landfall on Friday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For three thrilling hours, Mr. Grandage engulfed his audience in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the H.M.S. Indomitable as it sailed into action against the menace of the French fleet. Although sail-less, the massive, stage-spanning set (by Christopher Oram) combines  ropes, pulleys and a bevy of wooden beams to create a gritty impression of the hard life of British sailors. Creative lighting and smoke convey the atmosphere of danger on the high seas, both from enemy vessels and the treachery of Billy's shipmates.

The cast is led by baritone Jacques Imbrailo. He played the doomed Billy as an innocent, almost Christ-like figure who actually enjoys the fact that he's been impressed into military service. Mr. Imbrailo gave an exuberant, physical performance, singing Billy's early arias with bold, round tones. He was even better in the second act, dealing with the handicap of his character's stammer when brought before Captain Vere, and pathetic as he begged the Captain to save him from the drumhead court-martial that followed. Finally, Mr. Imbrailo was at his most moving in the last monologue before Billy's hanging, performing this solo scene with the depth and complexity of an art song.

As John Claggart, the ship's Master-at-Arms whose schemes set the tragedy in motion, Brindley Sherratt gave a complex, multi-layered performance. Claggart is a complex creation, a picture of seething rage and repressed sexual desire who wants to annihilate Billy for no reason other than the fact that the younger sailor is beautiful and good. Mr Sherratt sang with dark, black tones, conveying the utter desolation of this soulless creature and chewing enthusiastically into the more sadistic Claggart's moments. Significantly, he was a minor figure in the Act II battle scene--for one as baleful as Claggart would not deign to involve himself in such shipboard affairs.

The narrator and moral center of Billy Budd is Captain Vere, the star-gazing master of the Indomitable. Tenor Mark Padmore handled the dramatic strain of this high-lying part, giving a potent, emotionally sure performance that bookended the opera but came into its own in the character's lonely monologues. (Britten's musical structures are sung throughout, but written in such a way that they're not really formal arias.) It's not easy task to convey vacillation when one is supposed to be a leader of men, but Mr. Padmore managed, creating a captain whose weakness is his reliance on books and lack of strong moral fiber. Wracked with guilt in the final scene, Mr. Padmore wielded these blunt emotions with a surgeon's skill, ending the opera on a questioning, haunting note.

A superb collection of character singers filled out the crew of the Indomitable. Standout performances included David Flint, Stephen Gadd and Darren Jeffery as the trio of officers whose main function is to convict Billy. (Their trio "Don't like the French" provided welcome comic relief in the first act.) Jeremy White brought a gruff manner and a fine, dark bass to the role of Dansker, Billy's mentor and chief supporter below decks. Daniel Norman made the most of his brief scene as Red Whiskers, a reluctant victim of the Indomitable press-gang. John Moore brought a solid baritone to the short role of Donald. In the opera's most poignant moment, Mr. Grandage elected to have Billy's hanging done by these key characters, with Mr. Gijbertsen's Novice anchoring the line.

Below decks, the motion of the ocean was provided by Sir Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which has served as one of the two "house" ensembles at Glyndebourne since the founding of the Festival in 1934. (The other is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.) Sir Mark delivered a powerful, rock-ribbed performance of the score, with bold orchestral colors and careful control of dynamics. Although the orchestra surged and crashed (particularly during the interludes between scenes) the conductor was careful in always providing support for his singers in key moments. The mysterious textures of the "mist" music and the powerful, surging choruses that signify the imminent battle with a French ship were the most compelling moments of the evening.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.