Engaging a director and a set designer to make their operatic débuts at Glyndebourne sounds like folly; and when that opera is as difficult an assignment as Britten’s all-male Billy Budd, folly turns to madness. However... the result is a triumph, the production the most successful to date, from the première, which I saw on December 1, 1951 onwards. Christopher Oram’s multi-decked set transports us to a ship of the line in 1797 when the British Navy was fighting not only the French but the threat of mutiny within its ranks (a member of the cast told me that the cast cheered when it saw the set at the first stage rehearsal). Herman Melville apparently based his short story on a true story of those old times when conditions were tense, discipline strict and cruel. In the first act we see the bloody result of a young novice flogged because he bumped into the Bosun, a flinchworthy sight that matches Britten’s pathetic music, a contrapuntal slow tangle that parallels some of Bach’s passion music with on the top line a poetic saxophone where the older composer used the cor anglais.
The director, Michael Grandage is well known for his work both in New York and in London where he runs the Donmar Theatre. His handling of a large chorus of the crew is as masterly as that of the principals, both the lower deck and the officers on the bridge. We see Captain Vere who fails to save the young foretopman Billy Budd from the penalty of hanging from the yard arm when, unable to overcome his stammer to answer the charge of mutiny brought by Claggart, the master of arms, he strikes his superior officer dead. Claggart is a villain of the deepest dye with a homosexual lust for the young sailor.
Nearly every opera that Britten composed had to have a big part for his tenor partner, Peter Pears. There is no parallel to this liaison which gave rise to at least six major operas. The curious thing is that Britten wrote music for Pears so bound up with the idiosyncrasies of the tenor’s voice and musical personality that one still seems to hear that unique voice again in the performance of latter-day singers. Here it is John Mark Ainsley singing very well but with the overtones of the original portrayer of the part of Vere. Jacques Imbrailo from South Africa is every inch and every sound Budd, loose-limbed, innocent, a carefree young man until he is doomed. Phillip Ens, from Canada, is an impressive Claggart, only lacking a hard edge to his voice that would make him into a kind of latter-day Iago. All the smaller roles are part of a cast that realises Britten’s intentions.
But all this excellence is matched by a mastermind directing Britten’s wonderful music (on reflection this grand opera and The Turn of the Screw, chamber opera, mark the summit of this composer’s achievement, despite the fine qualities of his first success in the medium Peter Grimes).
It seems to me that Sir Mark Elder is now at the zenith of his career. In his early sixties, every work he conducts has a feeling of rightness and he gets what he wants out of his performers. He is at home with modern music, he delights in music of the ottocento (1800 – 1850), his English music, Elgar and Delius, is first class and here he gives us a perfect performance of Benjamin Britten. The Hallé Orchestra is fortunate in having his direction and his visits to London’s concert halls and opera houses bear golden fruit and, as here, bring a Budd to glorious bloom.