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 (

Next Week:

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions