A stunning new production of Billy Budd is helping revive Glyndebourne’s reputation and cement Britten’s international appealby Martin Kettle / June 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
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…