The silence at the end of the concert said it all. To have plunged the attention of the entire Royal Albert Hall into utter silence for a whole minute after the music has finished was an impressive feat. Such was the audience response to Mark Padmore’s closing walk down the back of the stage, as Captain Vere. After such a powerful and reflective epilogue, the audience did not stop clapping, even when the bows had finished.

Members of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, The Glyndebourne Chorus, and the London Philharmonic Orc © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Members of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, The Glyndebourne Chorus, and the London Philharmonic Orc
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s semi-staged performance of Britten’s Billy Budd was a roaring success. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra amidst a whirlwind of action, telling the tale based on Herman Melville’s short novel of the same name, set at the time of the French revolutionary wars. The opera is in two acts, with a prologue and epilogue of Captain Vere as an old man telling the story of conflict, morality and guilt wrapped around Billy Budd aboard his ship, the HMS Indomitable. Amongst other semi-staged productions at the BBC Proms, this was the one chosen from Britten’s repertoire to celebrate his centenary year.

Brindley Sherratt played a convincingly evil John Claggart, plotting against a saintly Jacques Imbrailo as the innocent Billy Budd. Not only were the lead parts immensely good singers, but their acting skills were brilliant. They came to life as their characters and were utterly engaging without being overly dramatic. There was nothing farcical about this production: it was gritty and believable. Some of the smaller roles were also attention-grabbing, in particular Jeremy White, who played a convincingly old and amicable Dansker. His final duet with “baby Budd” when he sneaks him a drink and a biscuit was vocally very tender.

The fact that this production had already been performed as a fully staged version at Glyndebourne meant that, as far as semi-staged productions go, Billy Budd did not lack drama. Even though the production at Glyndebourne had closed a mere two days earlier, the production did not feel uncoordinated or tired. Director Ian Rutherford staged the whole work around the LPO – the Glyndebourne Chorus sang from the back in full naval costumes, and the front of the stage hosted all the action. The balconies were used to create a bowl effect with the orchestra as the hull of the ship, and several entrances were used on stage. Below deck became the steps at the front of the stage, and up high on the balcony became the masts and yard-arm of the ship. There was no set, but a great use of props and abstract projections to set the action throughout. For the scene where Billy was to be hanged, a rope was lowered from the balcony stage right and was pulled tighter to represent Budd’s death to poignant orchestral music. The result was heartbreaking. Britten certainly knew how to write music to maximum dramatic and emotional effect, and from this performance it was easy to see why he is known as one of the supreme dramatists of the 20th century.

The sailors’ sea shanties had an immersive quality: the whole cast of over 60 men joined force to sing either side of the orchestra of over 70 musicians to powerful effect. This sound was possibly one of the most immense sounds I have ever heard. There was something about the percussion and the male voices, from boy sopranos to basses, that felt almost tribal. Although there were fewer performers in Billy Budd than in some of the other Proms, the scale of the performance felt huge. These shanties were also sung offstage, from outside the main hall, with soloists at the front of the stage aiding the idea that the sailors were below deck. The scale was enhanced by the space and movement of the well thought-out staging.

An unforgettable evening left a buzzing hall of people and a huge crowd cheering by the stage door. Such was the deserved praise for this beautiful performance.

*****