Adonis meets Tom Cruise in the Garden

Classical Music
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The Independent Culture
BENJAMIN BRITTEN'S Billy Budd is a piece with nothing to prove. Peter Grimes may be the most "important" of his operas, Turn of the Screw the most perfect, Death in Venice the most alluring; but the combination of controlled Verdian grandeur with near-Debussyan atmospheric finesse that you find in Budd gives it the edge. And to be the greatest Britten opera is, almost unarguably, to be the greatest opera in the English language. But there is still unfinished business about Billy Budd that needs to be addressed in performance: the uneasy relationship between the opera's Christian imagery and its homo-erotic subtext, and the question of whether it should play in four acts (as originally written) or two (as revised and usually seen)?

Covent Garden's new production is by the American director Francesca Zambello, who specialises in blockbusters like the Earls Court Tosca and ENO Khovanschina - not a woman to settle for half measures. Her Budd reverts to the original four acts and resurrects the lost scene of a ship's muster, which fixes Captain Vere as a bigger, more inspirational character than he otherwise appears. Britten scholars have long argued that this discarded scene is essential to the dramaturgy of the piece, and that it was only dropped in the first place because an influential critic, likened it to something out of Pirates of Penzance: the sort of comment that sent Britten, who bruised easily, into trauma.

For myself I'm not so sure that the scene is needed, or that its music matches the invention of the rest of the score. But I am sure that, like everything else in this production, it's superbly presented. Zambello is a director who thinks big and delivers grand gestures with confidence. In this Budd she has a bare stage - a wooden platform with a stylised ship's-mast- cum-proto-crucifix the only interest - and until the interval it doesn't do much. But she's just sav- ing her fire. In Act III the platform tips up to create a double view, above- and below-deck; the resulting massed scene of the chase through enemy waters builds into a stage spectacle that outclasses anything I know in the West End. Cameron Mackintosh's invitation must be in the post already.

As for the sexuality of Budd, it's dealt with truthfully but tastefully. Vere's feelings for Billy are obvious from the way he creeps into the final scenes as a silent observer: already old and Aschenbachian, reaching out to touch the boy in his memories. And Rodney Gilfry is a true Adonis of a Billy. His, voice, alas, is smaller than his pectorals - missing the vibrant ring of Thomas Allen's prime - but clean and rather beautiful when he comes downstage and you can hear it. At the end, Zambello pulls the awesome trick of hanging him before your eyes, leaving the body swaying like a martyred saint. Sebastian without the arrows.

The rest of the cast includes an impressive Mr Flint from Gidon Saks, en debut at the Garden and a Claggart in the making. As for the Claggart of the moment, John Tomlinson is magnificent, stretched by the compass of the role but with the black voice of a pure bass and the pain of unfulfilled desire just audible behind the malice. It's a towering performance, more demonstrative and, as it were, unbuttoned, than Clag- garts of the past. I wish the conductor Robert Spano would allow him more space to enlarge on the soliloquies; but then all of Spano's tempi pinch the music, and it irritates.

My major reservation, though, is Captain Vere. Graham Clark (who made an unforgettable Royal Opera debut this year as Wagner's Mime) lacks the required nobility of voice. But then he was suffering from a throat infection. Or so we were told. Two weeks ago I mentioned that Joan Rodgers wasn't on best form in the Opera North Pelleas and relayed the given information that she was recovering from a recent childbirth. Now I'm told she hasn't had a baby for over two years. Apologies to her for that. In future I shall ask for medical certificates.

The Boheme that also opened this week at the Garden is the old John Copley production we've seen a hundred times, and as often as not the dog in Act II has stolen the show. But no longer. Because this time the Rodolfo is Roberto Alagna, the young tenor who brought the Garden to its feet as Gounod's Romeo earlier in the season. He is, truly, sensational: the only Rodolfo I've known to bear comparison with the Three Ts, who have all passed through this production at some point in the past 20 years and set the standard. Alagna may be French, but he has a rich and effortless Italian sound, more lyrical than spinto in what really is a lyric-spinto role, but with substance. He acts easily, with natural grace that sets him up to be the Tom Cruise of the opera stage (good-looking, slightly short). And he eclipses everybody else on stage - including Cynthia Haymon, an engaging but extremely small-voiced Mimi. The dog barely registers.

Orchestral players often feel their contribution barely registers in the ensemble, which is one of the reasons why orchestras increasingly promote their best players as individuals, through chamber recitals. The English Chamber Orchestra had one on Thursday at Blackheath, for an uncommon combination of violin, clarinet and piano that worked surprisingly well. Philippe Honore played Mozart's Violin Sonata K454 with refined and cultivated style; Anthony Pike delivered Brahms's final chamber piece, the E flat Clarinet Sonata with a handsome full-tone; and in the Milhaud Suite for violin, clarinet, piano (somebody, you see, writes for this grouping) they joined with Thea King, the ECO's celebrated principal clarinet moonlighting here as a pianist. I hope it was moonlighting, because her strength is definitely woodwind. But this was a pleasing concert - which, incidently, advertised the fact that the ECO is in bad financial health. You have been warned.

'Budd' (Mon & Fri) and 'Boheme' (Thurs & Sat): ROH, WC2, 0171 304 4000.

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