Billy Budd, Festival Opera, Glyndebourne
The Lion's Face, Theatre Royal, Brighton
Opera Italia/Stephen Fry on Wagner, BBC4

Michael Grandage's handsome production of Britten's brutal classic is as good as opera can get

Pressed into service on HMS Indomitable, blithely ignorant of the mutinous associations of the name of his former ship, The Rights o' Man, Billy Budd doesn't know how old he is.

Abandoned at birth, he is a motherless child – cousin to Peter Grimes's workhouse prentices, a Tadzio in bell-bottoms, a Miles yet to meet his Quint, another martyred boy in Britten's canon. What is Billy's defect? His stammer? His innocence? Why is Claggart set on his destruction? Michael Grandage's production, Glyndebourne's first, leaves these questions open.

Grandage's handsome, disciplined, period staging returns to the interior moral tragedy of Herman Melville's novella, eschewing the "sexual discharge gone evil" that librettist E M Forster believed to be the core of Claggart's (Phillip Ens) malevolence. De-sexing his sadism puts the focus on institutional brutality: the floggings, the press gang, the tension of a mass of men adrift in a vessel with no purpose but to attack an enemy few of them will ever see. As John Mark Ainsley concludes Vere's opening soliloquy, Christopher Oram's vast set slides slowly into place, its galleries locking with the galleries of the opera house, encasing listeners and performers in the wooden belly of a whale.

Oram's designs emphasise the terrible claustrophobia of life on board a man-of-war. But where is the sea? In the orchestra pit, with Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Milk-white mist curls through Britten's score, aloof and ambivalent, the lightless, briny depths only felt in Billy's (Jacques Imbrailo) final mournful monologue. With little romance in their lives, the sailors invent it in swaggering shanties, a choral triumph led by John Moore's virile Donald. Only Dansker (Jeremy White) can see what is coming: the violence that must be unleashed after their prick-tease of a battle with a French frigate.

Lithe and sweet, Imbrailo's Billy radiates simplicity to Ainsley's chill sophistication and Claggart's venality. Ainsley's anguished "What have I done?" is more powerful for the reticence that precedes it. The musical performance is uniformly excellent, and when Darren Jeffery (Ratcliffe), Matthew Rose (Flint) and Iain Paterson (Redburn) deliver their trio, it is as good as opera can get. Under Elder's direction, "O heave away, heave!" acquires the weight of a spiritual. The last mercy of Billy's friends is a clean noose and a swift pull of the rope, misery etched in their faces. The eroticism may have been scrubbed from this opera, but its cruelty remains.

John Fulljames's Opera Group production of The Lion's Face is dominated by Dave Hill's magnificent Mr D: adrift in dementia, and the only character who speaks, rather than sings, over Elena Langer's cat's-cradle of figures for solo strings. The cheerful care assistant (Rachel Hynes) and earnest doctor (Benedict Nelson) cannot alleviate Mr D's confusion or the weariness of his wife (Elizabeth Sikora). With her school shut because of snow, the care assistant's daughter (Fflur Wyn) begins a relationship with Mr D, bringing resolution to a half-remembered incident from his childhood. Dementia resists the imposition of a narrative, but this is an accurate and sympathetic exploration of the disease.

On BBC4, the first of three parts of Opera Italia took us back to the birth of the art form and its first two centuries. Antonio Pappano was the perfect tour guide, zipping between Venice, Mantua and Naples, coaxing an X-rated "Pur ti miro" from Danielle de Niese and Sarah Connolly, parsing da capo and opera buffa into tasty soundbites, and declaiming simultaneous translations of Rossini arias from Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez, while accompanying them at the piano. Is there no end to this man's energy?

Stephen Fry on Wagner was a cloudier affair, in which the Jewish presenter's guilt for loving the music of a composer venerated by Hitler was both the engine of the documentary and the elephant in the room, depending on which room was being filmed. Fry's to-camera twinkles of conspiratorial glee from the Bayreuth rehearsal studio ("Stratford-upon-Avon, Mecca and Graceland rolled into one!") were swiftly replaced by furrows of angst as he considered Joachim Köhler's theory that Die Meistersinger inspired the Nuremberg rallies. Sixty minutes was not long enough to untangle the issues in this scattergun show, nor did I buy the lightness of Fry's step as he skipped back into Bayreuth after interviewing the cellist and Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who mildly enquired whether he mightn't listen to the operas at home instead. Quite.

'Billy Budd' (01273 813813) to 27 Jun; 'The Lion's Face' tours to 29 Jul (thelionsface.com)

Next Week:

Anna Picard heads for Bath, where Richard Williams's staging of Israel in Egypt opens at the Roman Baths

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