This BAM production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, imported from Glyndebourne, achieves the rare distinction of making a great performance out of a decidedly mediocre work.
Billy Budd was Britten’s first full opera since Peter Grimes, and was premièred in 1951. The story comes from Herman Melville’s incomplete novel of the same name, which was adapted for Britten by Eric Crozier and E.M. Forster. If Britten’s music never reaches the heights he found for Grimes, let alone what he would achieve in The Turn of the Screw, the tale remains promising. It is essentially a parable about good and evil, earthly illegality and spiritual morality, as seen through the remembrance of the intellectual Captain Edward Fairfax Vere. Vere begins and ends the opera as an old man, still wrestling retrospectively with the actions we see played out in the rest of the work aboard the HMS Indomitable during the French Revolutionary Wars. Billy Budd, recruited to the Indomitable from the merchant ship Rights o’ Man, is an innocent, loved, and proficient sailor who becomes the focus of continuing fears among the officers of mutiny. He attracts the attentions of the vicious Master-at-Arms, John Claggart, who swears to destroy him, accusing Billy of fomenting unrest. Summoned before Vere to defend himself, Billy cannot on account of his stammer, so he strikes Claggart, accidentally killing him. Tried according to the Articles of War, Billy is hanged, despite the sailors agreeing that Claggart is not to be missed.
Britten’s opera has profound moments and some serious dramatic defects. It is never quite clear why Billy is so to be loved, and so we might not feel the impact of his death as much as his shipmates. Nor are the music and text the last words in brevity. Michael Grandage’s production, a true company performance born of lengthy rehearsal time, emphasises latent themes within the opera to ensure that it takes its emotional toll. The prologue and epilogue take place in pitch black, with Vere (Mark Padmore) singing alone in a shaft of light, surrounded only by his remembrances. The set (Christopher Oram) consists solely of the decks and hull of the boat, dingily lit (Paule Constable) except when battle seems close. The high walls of the ship become Vere’s memory palace, although this only becomes clear when it is the old Vere who anachronistically watches Billy go to his death.
The set, alongside detailed and intricate acting, allows an exploration of other forms of oppression too. Grandage makes just explicit enough what might otherwise be left implicit: fears about homosexuality, their self-repression, and the protection measures taken to hide them. Simply put, Claggart hates Billy because he fancies him and cannot act upon it (whether Vere does too, likewise punishing Billy through the law, is left uncertain). The homosocialism and homoeroticism of naval warfare are front and centre. So too is war in general, whether that against France in 1797, or the cold war of 1951, or the wars of 2010, when this production was first seen. Loyalty, internal security, and the loss of rights and moral bearings in the face of a revolutionary power are key themes in a story in which war never quite comes. Patriotism, in this production as in many productions of Grimes, is itself oppressive: shivers flooded my spine as the Union Jack was unfurled behind the wooden struts of the hull as the men sang a terrifying ode to war.
Consuming as the production is, it’s the Glyndebourne Chorus that made this particularly special. Running the gamut from knackered pain to girding for the fight, they sang with a precision and tonal fire that is a credit to chorusmaster Jeremy Bines. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, cramped in a BAM’s small pit, were driven to white heat by Sir Mark Elder, whose pacing was sure and whose colourations of Britten’s occasional banalities kept the interest going.