You can view Britten’s Billy Budd as an opera about the failure of words. When the angelic sailor Billy is falsely accused by his superior office Claggart, his stammer prevents him from defending himself and he lashes out, fatally. When the ship's officers implore Captain Vere to guide them in Billy’s trial, he cannot find the words that might save Billy, a failure that haunts him to the end of his days.

© Richard Hubert Smith
© Richard Hubert Smith

I’m in danger of being every bit as tongue-tied in describing last night’s Glyndebourne revival of Michael Grandage’s 2010 production, overwhelmed by the list of superlatives that I’m about to apply. Billy Budd is a masterpiece and last night’s performance excelled in every aspect, coming as close to operatic perfection as I’m likely to see in a long time.

Billy Budd uses dozens of different combinations of instruments, rhythms and dynamic changes to create the distinct moods which are constantly shifting in each scene and sub-scene. The London Philharmonic Orchestra gave an exemplary demonstration of how every different combination can be weighted to bring out the composer’s intent, with virtuosic playing in the solo passages and elemental force in the tutti. To achieve such a level of detail, conductor Andrew Davis must have put in a gigantic level of preparation with his orchestra.

All three main roles were sung with excellence. Mark Padmore was outstanding as Captain Vere: his diction was clear enough to permit surtitles to be dispensed with for a lot of his scenes, and he projected the full force of Vere’s complex character while giving unparalleled sweetness of tone and crafting of melodic phrases. He is a worthy wearer of the mantle of Peter Pears. As Billy, Jacques Imbrailo contributed well to the early ensemble work, and came to the fore in his Act II meditation “Through the port comes the moon-shine astray,” which he sang with the grace and sensitivity of a lieder singer, making it a jewel of rare beauty. Even for the evil Claggart, perhaps the most villainous of his creations, Britten’s music is often sublime: Brindley Sherratt summoned up the combination of cantabile beauty and patent evil. Billy Budd contains many lesser roles; all were sung creditably, with a special mention to the double act of Stephen Gadd and David Soar as Redburn and Flint, who entertained thoroughly with some much needed comic relief in their jingoistic ditty “Don’t like the French”.

But what sets this production apart is the combination of Michael Grandage’s staging and the ensemble work of the chorus and cast. Christopher Oram’s set is an extraordinary creation, a multi-storey wooden frame which completely convinces you that you are watching the inside of a 74 gun Napoleonic battleship. It's not at all photo-realistic, which would be utterly impractical, but a plethora of visual cues evoke your memory of what a wooden ship should be like while providing an effective space in which singers can move. The frame reminds you of the ribs that brace a ship's hull, but these are shaped to act as internal balconies. The stage is made of wooden decking, albeit in a concave shape you would never see on a real ship. Ropes abound, although there are no masts to which they can lead; a simple wall with leaded windows, familiar to anyone who has seen a picture of HMS Victory, is lowered to provide Captain Vere's cabin; a roof-like frame provides the claustrophobia below decks without destroying the acoustics. This exceptional attention to detail results in a faithful creation of the atmosphere of a ship of the period.

The general quality of acting is very high, and in the big set pieces, the movement around stage is sensational. Most spectacular of all was the chase scene in Act II, when an enemy ship is sighted. Each of the many elements of the warship’s crew (sailors, marines, powder monkeys and more) snaps into action; the chorus throngs around the stage as the music swells; the Red Ensign is seen fluttering in the breeze at the back of the ship. Even those not raised on Hornblower or Master and Commander could not fail to be carried on the wave of excitement. Close to the end of the opera, after Billy’s hanging, the hummed chorus, described by Melville as “a torrent roaring distantly through the woods,” was accompanied by a visible sense of threat as the body of seamen ebbed and flowed.

Many individual scenes thrilled – Vere’s first entrance, the consolation of the whipped and bleeding novice by his friend, the fight between Billy and Squeak, too many others to mention. Clearly, Michael Grandage and revival director Ian Rutherford know this work inside out and have strained every muscle to bring out the unique character of each scene.

Billy Budd follows the classic tragic model of hubris / nemesis / redemption. If it has a flaw – some imperfection in the divine image, to use Vere’s words – it is of being almost too tragic to bear: Vere’s final redemption leaves a horribly sour taste if you are unable to accept the imagery of Billy as a Christ figure. Also, the motivation for Claggart’s evil is only ever explained in an oblique way: as an audience, we have to deduce the homosexual agenda from our historical knowledge of the period and of Britten. But I have to work hard to identify flaws: this was drama of the highest degree, intensified by extraordinary staging and music superbly played and sung – an unforgettable night of opera.