Those who mistakenly believe that historical operas by dead composers can only be made ‘relevant’ if they are updated and taken out of their traditional theatrical context should get along to Michael Grandage’s production of Billy Budd. For there, in a presentation in high fidelity to the plot’s sea-battles with the French in 1797, they will find a massively irrefutable counter-argument.
It was obvious at its premiere that this show had hit on a definitive format for Britten’s passionate tale of sexual repression, sadism, and the clash of personal and political moral imperatives. Under revival-direction by Ian Rutherford, with new castings for Captain Vere and master-at-arms Claggart, and with Jacques Imbrailo’s subtly deepened characterisation of the hero-victim, we now see more clearly than ever how terrifying this work actually is.
Seamlessly shifting from level to level of the man o’ war within whose timbered belly the action unfolds, Christopher Oram’s set suggests that dehumanising claustrophobia which for co-librettist EM Forster was the mainspring for the ‘blackness and sadness’ of the story. As Grandage has pointed out, the score itself represents the surging, foaming sea, and with Andrew Davis at the helm the strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion discharge that function consummately; meanwhile the class war-without-end between smartly-dressed officers and the hunched grey figures swabbing the deck below them pursues its relentless course.
The episodes in which the Novice (piteously incarnated by Peter Gijsbertsen) is broken by a flogging, and subsequently turns into a Judas-figure, are horribly convincing; the officers’ debates about how to sentence Billy after his accidental slaying of Claggart have a raw immediacy. Moreover, Vere’s ruminations on the iron laws of the fleet versus principled mutiny in the face of maltreatment have acquired a new topicality: Barack Obama got into a similar tangle last week as he tried to find a way through the traitor-or-patriot debate on Edward Snowden.
The central characters are peerlessly played. We watch the evolution of Brindley Sherratt’s satanic Claggart as he stifles the sexual attraction he feels for his victim, while Mark Padmore sings Vere with a burning, tortured intensity. Imbrailo’s almost autistic Billy moves from being one of the lads to becoming a transfigured Christ, darkening and enriching his tone as he embraces his fate. The hanging itself has a Goya-like horror: we won’t see that when this show comes to the Proms on August 27, but the singing should be awesome.