Wednesday, 28 August 2013

FANTASTIC Billy Budd Prom 60 Davis

Astonishingly good Benjamin Britten  Billy Budd, Prom 60, from Glyndebourne. Definitely BBC Prom of the Year, it's THAT good. Exceptionally powerful performance all round, even in the minor parts. Not a weak link, and Andrew Davis conducts one of the most vivid, intense performances ever.  Musically,  this 2013 revival leaves the 2010 original for dead on every count. What a pity Glyndebourne invested so much in filming 2010. It's this 2013 version that should be preserved for posterity. Glyndebourne (and the BBC Proms) should figure out ways of making this available, because there will be huge underground demand.

Jacques Imbrailo's Billy Budd completely redefines the opera. Captain Vere has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what Billy meant. Strictly speaking, Billy Budd is about Captain Vere and his dilemmas.  If anything, this time Imbrailo's even better because he's developed more aspects of Billy's personality. Imbrailo is unique. Quite likely no-one else will ever create the role as perceptively as this. We'll probably go back to straightforward Beautys or Thomas Allen Billys, but Imbrailo has shown us what Vere might mean when he spies a ship in a vision  and "knows where she's heading".

Starry Vere lives in the realm of the intellect, thinking in terms of Greek allusion. Billy's a creature of instinct who lives so much in the present that he's overwhelmed by the gift of hard biscuit even when he's about to die. Thetre's another Billy inside which he doesn't reveal, even perhaps, to himself. Notice the delicate lyricism that Imbrailo gives lines like "Nights, I was a-dreaming under the sea", even when evil surrounds him

Fundamentally Billy is a good person, but the stutter traps him when he needs to speak. He strikes out instinctively and kills.  Somewhere deep inside Billy, there's a volcano  "I'm strong, and I know it, and I'll stay strong" A comic book action man doesn't need to remind himself. Imbrailo's Billy makes us realize that Billy's goodness hasn't come as easily as we might think. This Billy is mortal, and all the greater for that because he's no plaster saint. When Imbrailo sang "Through the port comes moonshine astray”, I could hardly breathe, I was so moved. Imbrailo suggests some unknown pain in Billy's past. He does not want to die. But he faces what's coming to him with transcendant grace.

After Billy dies, the orchestra explodes, rumbling with menace, as if the very universe were muttering "Mutiny, Mutiny" like the men. Andrew Davis conducts with surprising ferocity, emphasizing the savagery beneath the notes. Billy Budd is an opera of protest, most certainly not a jolly sea shanty. Orchestrally, Davis's Billy Budd is close to the cosmic violence that Daniel Harding conjured up. We don't need to "see" the sea. It's everywhere in the music. Like the intrigues aboard ship, the sea's moods are deceptive and subject to sudden, radical changes. When fog descends, an eerie inertia descends on the Indomitable, trapped in a miasma of ominous chords. When Davis conducts the battle engagement, the cross-currents in the music reflect not only the high-adrenalin confusion of war but also barbarism.

Mark Padmore gives the finest performance of his career, sacrificing elegance for psychological truth. He takes much greater risks, so they bristle and cut. Vere is neither weak nor effete. Only an "English tenor" can really create that sense of horror that haunts Britten's innermost psyche. Padmore will hate me, but he's sounding more like Ian Bostridge than ever, but to good effect. That takes courage. Full credit to Padmore. John Mark Ainsley, in 2010, was just too angelic.

The other great revelation of Davis's Billy Budd is Brindley Sherratt. Sherratt's background in oratorio must help, because he sings Claggart as if he were a force oif evil of truly Biblical dimensions. Sherratt's Claggart slithers malevolently like the Serpent in Eden. "I will destroy you" Sherratt growls, as if he were the Devil himself. "His name is", Sherratt tells Padmore "Billy Budd", spitting out each syllable with poisonous precision. Not every bass can sing with such lethal clarity. Like Imbrailo's Billy, Sherratt's Claggart will be the stuff of legend for years to come.

Listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 here and pray that it will be available in some form forever. Please also read Claire Seymour;s review of the Glyndebourne Festival production. She's the person who wrote the book on Britten's operas..

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Absolutely agree. Was listening in my Connecticut office via the web and was blown away. Have seen and appreciated a number of Billy Budds in my life and this was, as you write, revelatory. So hope BBC will create a disc of it. Want to relive it often over the winter. So glad I saw your review online.