Performance notes: Billy Budd

A stunning new production of Billy Budd is helping revive Glyndebourne’s reputation and cement Britten’s international appeal
June 21, 2010

All at sea: Jacques Imbrailo in the title role of Billy Budd

Glyndebourne’s formidably good new production of Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera Billy Budd bears witness to three connected things. The first is that Britten’s operas, which unlike Billy Budd are often small-scale chamber pieces, are ideally suited to the more intimate dimensions of the East Sussex venue. 

The second is that the new production shows how the exclusive summer opera festival is finding its artistic voice again after an uncertain few years. 

The third is the extent to which the new Billy Budd reminds us that Britten’s successor composers have struggled to match his ability to write for a wider audience. Britten had a long, if spiky, connection with Glyndebourne. His opera The Rape of Lucretia had its British premiere there in 1946. The following year, his English Opera Group returned to give the world premiere of Albert Herring. But by 1948 Britten had fallen out with Glyndebourne’s opinionated founder John Christie. The composer cut all ties and constructed a new operatic base in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. The two camps feuded for the rest of Britten’s life. 

Aldeburgh thought Glyndebourne too snobby, John Christie’s son George once told me, while Glyndebourne thought Aldeburgh too queeny. The twain rarely met. It was not until 1981, five years after Britten’s death, that one of his operas—Peter Hall’s masterly production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—was heard again at Glyndebourne. Other Britten productions followed: Death in Venice (with the tenor Robert Tear in the main role), Peter Grimes, Owen Wingrave and The Turn of the Screw. And now Billy Budd. 

That leaves the troubled 1953 coronation commission, Gloriana, (which Covent Garden will revive for the Britten centenary in 2013) as the only full-length Britten opera still unperformed at Glyndebourne. It is hard to believe that this is Billy Budd director Michael Grandage’s first opera production, such is the assurance and balance with which he has put the adaptation of the Herman Melville novella on the stage. The set, the oppressive interior of a Nelson-era man-of-war, has been justly praised for its claustrophobic power, though comparisons with Peter Weir’s 2003 Master and Commander movie stretch the point too far. Mark Elder’s authoritative conducting and Jacques Imbrailo’s coltish Billy deserve the plaudits they have won too. 

And if John Mark Ainsley’s Vere and Phillip Ens’s Claggart suffer by comparison with some of their best predecessors in the roles, the choral singing and production—especially of the thrilling chase of a French warship at the start of act two—are tremendous. The success of Billy Budd is certainly timely for Glyndebourne which, since George Christie’s retirement as chairman in 2000, has sometimes struggled to find a convincing artistic identity. The foolish decision to abandon Mozart as the festival’s core composer—none of his operas was performed in either 2008 or 2009—was indicative of this uncertainty. 

Increasingly, Glyndebourne’s repertoire and house style have seemed difficult to distinguish from anywhere else. Some new productions in the last decade have worked brilliantly—David McVicar’s 2005 Giulio Cesare or Richard Jones’s 2009 Falstaff, for instance. But others—Jones’s Macbeth (revived this summer), Hall’s Cenerentola and Katie Mitchell’s St Matthew Passion—all misfired. A good deal of credibility is therefore riding on the 2010 and 2011 seasons. It is important that Jonathan Kent’s new production of Don Giovanni, which opens in July with Gerald Finley in the title role and which will be immediately revived next year, confirms the success of Billy Budd. 

The pivotal new production of Glyndebourne 2011, though, will be David McVicar’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (again with Finley). Jonathan Kent’s excellent 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw will be revived next summer, too. This underscores what Billy Budd also shouts from the rooftops, which is that Britten, almost alone among the opera composers of the post-1945 era, possessed the ability to write works with wide and enduring box office appeal. When Britten died in 1976 it would have been reasonable to assume that his reputation, so strong in his lifetime, might have undergone a period of eclipse. 

Yet 30 years on, it is stronger than ever. This summer Billy Budd has received new productions not just here, but in Frankfurt and even Paris. Why that should be is a big question. His genius certainly helped. But so did the fact that Britten, very much a man of his own political era, was committed to writing music that was useful (as he often said) and operas that were morally engaged. Unlike some of his successors, he always wanted an audience. It is both gratifying and instructive that the feeling is still so widely reciprocated.