Until last week, The Indomitable had never ventured so far inland in Spain. The Teatro Real’s artistic manager, Joan Matabosch, has ended with more than 60 years of neglect, recruiting a starry artistic crew which has finally brought enthusiasm to an average season thus far. British director Deborah Warner has created what might be the Billy Budd of the next decade, an instant classic that will tour to Paris, Helsinki and Rome in the years to come.

© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Warner remains faithful to the basics of her theatre: unvarnished literality, clear plot development, high sense of drama and superb definition of the characters. She understands perfectly that Vere, Billy and Claggart are not exceptional heroes in an inflated tragedy, because, usually in Britten's operas, it is intimacy which secretly leads to grandeur and universality. For Warner, they are three ordinary men who happen to join their destinies in the drama of their lives, an obscure story confined to its own watery boundaries. Naturalism dominated a body language that might seem obvious, but that always underlined tenderness over violence, creating unique moments such as the sublime separation of Billy and Vere after the trial scene.

For this first-class production, Warner has summoned two champions of the scene: set designer Michael Levine and lighting designer Jean Kalman. Every element of the bare stage created a constant feeling of movement: shuddering black ropes defined and separated the scenic space and waving lights reminded of the instability of this floating monarchy. The upper deck literally hangs over the sailors’ cabin, underlining the mutinous divide between officers and sailors, and between Claggart–Vere and Billy, thrown into the abyss by Vere’s Last Judgement. Kalman’s lighting is able to produce dozens of different spaces, perfectly conveying Warner’s dramatic discourse and creating unforgettable scenes.

Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) and Clive Bayley (Dansker) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) and Clive Bayley (Dansker)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Jacques Imbrailo comes as a natural choice for the title role. Youth blooms in his mellow baritone and passionate phrasing, and he definitely has the physique du rôle. A littlle overwhelmed by the orchestra in the magnificent “Billy Budd, king of the birds”, he sometimes failed to convey the natural command that flows from the character in his first scenes. He was more convincing in the lyric parts, especially in a truly moving final scene (although the voice started to show some signs of weariness towards the end). In perfect accordance to Warner’s sober tone, he captured the honesty and joy of the character without overstating it.

Toby Spence has lost most of the aerial and limpid tone he used to have a decade ago but he still retains a recognisably beautiful timbre. His phrasing was masterful, based on clear diction and full of nuances. He portrayed an insecure, restless Vere, always too unwilling to display his authority aboard. This gave the character a touch of superficiality that made it difficult to say if Vere has learned anything from the tale, which weakens, in a very interesting way, his authority as implicit narrator.

Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and Francisco Vas (Squeak) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Brindley Sherratt (Claggart) and Francisco Vas (Squeak)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Brindley Sherratt’s Claggart was an absolute triumph. He steers clear of the obvious temptation of playing the violent villain and conceives Claggart as an ordinary man capable of the worst depravity. He depicted this sombre banality with careful and never too emphatic phrasing. The rest of the cast was equally superb and contributed to the overall success. Among the officials, Thomas Oliemans stood out as Mr Redburn, with his impressive and heroic voice. Duncan Rock was a perfect counterpoint to Billy, both vocally and physically, as Donald. Clive Bayley’s impressive spontaneity as Dansker was heartbreaking in the final scene with Billy and Sam Furness was a truly innocent Novice. The chorus of the Teatro Real showed again the beautiful colour of its male voices but was not completely at ease in Britten’s musical language.

Ivor Bolton gave his best performance so far as chief conductor of the Teatro Real. The musical discourse flowed with clarity and the strings played masterfully with the different densities of the score, although one could have asked for a more passionate approach. The bony violence of Britten’s brass and wind sections was softened by a preference for equilibrium which may also be interpreted as risk aversion.

Jacques Imbrailo (Billy), Duncan Rock (Donald) and chorus © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Jacques Imbrailo (Billy), Duncan Rock (Donald) and chorus
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Deborah Warner’s great achievement comes as a reminder that the performance of Britten operas is at the peak of its Classical Era. Conductors and directors keep on trying to spread the subtle and complex legacy of Britten, still known only superficially to most of the public. We cannot but enjoy this phase of meticulous literality and reverence to the author, but maybe the time is ripe to open his works to bolder reinterpretations.