Billy Budd is not an easy opera to stage. I’ve always felt that parts of it were more like a secular oratorio than a theatre piece and, then, there is the problem of the libretto and its characters. The characters seem written more as symbols than flesh and blood men, and performers (and directors) can only put so much ‘life’ into them. Hence, the homophiliac slant frequently tacked on to this simple parable of good and evil, in an attempt to give it breadth.
Tonight’s production at the Deutsche Oper, imported from the English National Opera (2012), went a remarkably long way to facing up to these problems and making them (without the homophiliac accessories) into a very much more than just acceptable drama. Captain De Vere, all dressed in shining white, and housed in a ‘little’ cabin which looked fresh from Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Claggart in a black Wotanish raincoat, emerging from his dwelling in the hellish bowels of the ship, were simple symbols of striving good and pointless evil. But Billy himself was played as a very real man which, in consequence, drew the whole focus of the evening and its feelings onto him.
The rest of the cast, with the exception of the novice and Dansker, were melted into a mass of splendidly-singing humanity, any individuality or singular character in them smothered under costumes of the same hue and, often, style, so that much of the time it was difficult to tell one officer or seaman from another. A trick which, of course, threw the three main characters fully into relief.
The main setting of the night, the confining walls of the ship, de Vere’s ‘little world’ containing his smaller utterly-apart white world, was nicely claustrophobic, and the cannon, which served as a link between him and the hoi polloi, most effective. It all suited the ‘symbolic’ side of the opera beautifully. The costumes, I’m not so sure about. They certainly weren’t kosher 1797, but why should they be? But I couldn’t quite make out why the chorus men were all dressed as Chinamen, and then in red dressing gowns. And why were there so many military police with Punch-and-Judy truncheons on an eighteenth-century English man o’ war?
The performances lived up to the demands of the production. Burkhard Ulrich sang a de Vere as we know him, although I would have liked him to have been a rather more manly, upright (physically), aristocratic Captain. And old man. His English was crystalline. Gideon Saks stalked and loomed splendidly as the epitome of evil, and gave his soliloquy most effectively. It isn’t his fault that, to modern audiences, it is rather redolent of Les Miserables’ Javert. This has been my favourite moment of the show since Forbes Robinson days, and I’m not going to let that change!
But the triumph of the night – and it was a triumph – was for John Chest as Billy. What a Billy. Not some little angelic, dolly lad; a real, vibrant, man-boyish youngster, enthusiastic, loyal with the kind of loyalty that comes from being a bit dim, the sort of chap you would always love to have around you, and with a fresh, youthful baritone which may have been a little swamped by the orchestra in Act I but which flowed out with heart-touching warmth in Act II. A truly fine performance.
Thomas Blondelle was a standout as the Novice and Berlin idol Markus Brück was a fine Redburn, amongst the mass of messmates (which included last week’s Sarastro!), and I think that Matthew Newlin deserves a mention for the suitably clear (off-stage) singing of the reports from the crow’s nest.
The orchestra under Donald Runnicles had a great time with Britten’s atmospheric music, and when they and the chorus let rip all together, it was the most enjoyable bit of choral singing I’ve heard for ages. Yes, you heard it, I’ve said something appreciative about a chorus!
I didn’t think I was going to. The way they all tritty-trotted on like Chinese dolls, or the Policemen from the original Dreigroschenoper, at the start, or bowed under their tormenters like the opening chorus in .. oh dear, Les Miserables ... or pulled away at any rope in sight … I honestly thought I was in for a sticky evening. But they soon settled down, I got used to them, and to the style of the production, and I warmed up well, indeed, to thorough enthusiasm by Scene 3. And there I stayed.
A Billy Budd with a Billy like John Chest will always be a treat. But to have him surrounded by a fine cast, and in a clear, interesting, strong production.. well, you can’t really ask for much more, can you?