The central drama in “Billy Budd” unambiguously rotates around the relationships between Seaman Billy Budd, Captain Vere, and the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart. However, the exact nature of the relationships and the psychological motivations upon which they are founded are shrouded in a white mist, opening up the possibility for directors to pursue a variety of valid interpretations. Many recent productions have focused on the homoerotic impulses that are imbedded in the work, although by exaggerating their importance they have tended to give it a lopsided reading, and lose sight of its other equally, if not more, significant themes, such as the conflict between good and evil, the inherent flaws contained within goodness, moral uncertainties and redemption. In this award-winning production for Opera di Roma (a coproduction with Teatro Real de Madrid and Royal Opera House, Covent Garden), Deborah Warner focuses on Billy’s Christ-like role and the redemption of Vere, although never losing sight of the opera’s other themes, of which the homoerotic nature of the relationships is only very lightly touched upon.
Warner and her production team of Michael Levine (scenography), Chloe Obolensky (costumes) and Jean Kalman (lighting), created an oppressive, dark and claustrophobic environment which added to, and reflected, the conditions onboard “The Indomitable,” an 18th century man-of-war, although without giving the ship and costumes a realistic, or time specific focus. In fact, ropes, ladders and hammocks were the only connection with an actual ship. Throughout the performance the sea mists laid heavily over the set and intensified the heavy atmosphere. Warner cleverly drew a parallel between the all-male environment of the ship with that of a prison, the ropes hanging from the rafters giving the impression of prison bars, an apposite analogy given that the men had been impressed and were, thus, serving against their will, subject to severe constraints on their freedom and where brutality and violence were casually despatched. The opening scene established, in no uncertain terms, the harsh regime under which the men lived, as they were abused and threatened by the bosun and his enforcers, while compelled to scrub the decks. Not surprisingly, therefore, talk of mutiny was a constant undercurrent, and gave the officers’ fears a convincing context. The rigid hierarchy, which separated the crew into officers and men, was always strongly delineated, and its inequalities highlighted. Following Billy’s execution, the crew rebel and surround their officers who are standing on a raised platform. It is swung menacingly from side to side, before they are beaten into submission by the bosun and his men. This is not a “band of brothers,” it is a “floating monarchy” held together by the brutal enforcement of rules under its “king” Captain Vere. All of which created the perfect background upon which the drama was played out.
Morally Failed Center
It is upon the character of Captain Vere that Warner focuses the larger part of her attentions; Billy and Claggart, although more than mere ciphers, are generally allowed less room to develop and it is their impact on Vere himself that is kept at the fore. Their roles are, after all, being seen through the prism of Vere’s memories. Nor is her depiction of Vere, played by Toby Spence, an attractive one. Although a decent man, he is weak, sentimental and in a position to which he is obviously unsuited. As Vere sits in his cabin in the evening, the men start singing below, he pushes his ear to the floor to listen, and concludes that they are genuinely happy, completely oblivious to the reality of the violence which surrounds their daily existence. Moreover, he lacks moral courage; the very characteristic he himself lauds when making his first entrance, following the prologue. At the crucial point in the drama, Vere must decide on Billy’s fate, and his inability to act is exposed; he knows Billy should not hang, but prefers to hide behind the rules and regulations – acting as a petty bureaucrat, unable to use his power to do what is morally right. The mists cloud Vere’s mind as he searches for moral certainties on the “infinite sea,” and he is found wanting! Spence produced an emotionally intense and finely drawn portrait of the captain. His acting was simply excellent, conveying perfectly the inherent weaknesses that define Vere. Whether sensitively pondering over the works of Plutarch, panicking over Claggart’s death or coldly divorcing himself from any part in the decision over Billy’s fate, his acting was engaging and compelling. His singing was of an equally high standard. He enunciated his words clearly, phrased his lines thoughtfully and skillfully, and used his sweet sounding tenor to great effect to produce a detailed and nuanced reading, although his voice never fully bloomed in the upper register. His agonizing over his responsibility for Billy’s execution, “I could have saved him,” during the epilogue, was wonderfully expressive, full of real pain and sadness, although maybe tinged with a little self-pity! Spence exposed the flawed captain’s failings to the full, in a truly striking portrayal.
Billy Budd, played by Phillip Addis arrived on “The Indomitable,” full of smiles and enthusiasm, and bounced his way through the evening, naively engaging with who and whatever came his way. Setbacks never disturbed him for long, such as his fight with Squeak or wrongly thinking he was about to be promoted. There was always a large smile on his face. He was a paragon of naïve goodness, which of course, ultimately leads to his execution. Addis brought vocal energy and a vivacious swagger to the part, his subtle phrasing always closely aligned to the meaning of the text. When chained in the brig awaiting his execution he is understandably suffering and sang the hauntingly understated aria “Billy in the Darbies,” in which he contemplates his death. It was a sensitive rendition, full of pathos, yet without a trace of self-pity. He quickly recovers his positive attitude, but is now wiser, death has sharpened his faculties and realizes that he can redeem Vere, to whom he remains loyal, who is lost on the “infinite sea.” At his execution he climbs up the ladder, and disappears out of sight. Christ-like he ascends into heaven, his final words, “Starry Vere, God bless you!” After the brutality and destruction wrought through Vere’s moral failure, his redemption through Billy’s blessing, brings a ray of hope into what is otherwise a bleak work.
The Polar Opposite
Claggart, played by John Relyea, certainly cut an imposing and forceful figure. Alone among the crew he understands all too well what lies in men’s hearts and, moreover, realizes that he himself is a thoroughly depraved individual. He is also aware, for example, that Vere is a weak man. Billy’s arrival on the ship magnifies his own self-hatred and he vows to destroy him in what is essentially his credo “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness.” Relyea sung every phrase with menacing intent, inflected with venomous loathing. He possesses a heavy gravelly bass with a deep dark timbre which carried authority, and which he used to intimidated the crew. When confronting Vere his intonation displayed a sneering cynical contempt. On the negative side, however, his voice lacked agility and a degree of subtlety
Best of the Rest
With 20 soloists, it is impossible detail all the individual performances, and although all performed well, a number deserve mention. The role of Dansker, essayed by Stephen Richardson, exemplified the camaraderie that existed amongst the crew below decks. As an old hand, he had the confidence of the men and befriended Billy. His bass has a pleasing timbre, which he used with intelligence to produce a sympathetic reading.
Keith Jameson played the put-upon Novice, who was bullied and beaten by the Bosun and Claggart, and forced to act against Billy. He possesses a bright tenor, phrased his lines with skill and captured the fear that underscored his behavior.
The three officers, Mr. Flint, Mr. Redburn and Mr. Ratcliffe played by Zachary Altman, Thomas Oliemans, and David Shipley, respectively, looked and sounded the parts. They were authoritative, aloof, and commanded respect, their voices solid, secure and certain.
The Maestro del Coro, Roberto Gabbiani, did an excellent job in preparing the Coro dell’Opera di Roma, which put in a stunning performance. The atmospheric refrain “O heave! O heave away, heave,” which at various times throughout the work captures the men’s strength, their exhaustion, or their thoughts of mutiny, was delightfully presented, perfectly conjuring up images of life on an 18th century sailing ship, and was enunciated perfect in English. Moreover, all its members acted out their not unsubstantial roles superbly. The strain of living in such inhuman conditions was clearly conveyed, aided in no small part by the excellent choreography of Kim Brandstrup.
The Orchestra Dell’Opera di Roma, under the direction of James Conlon, produced a first-class performance, creating a sound world full of dark contrast; evoking, for example, the claustrophobia of the confined conditions onboard “The Indomitable” and the empty space of the “infinite sea.” It was a detailed performance that captured the subtleties of the score, yet never lost sight of the work’s overall structure. Moreover, Conlon never let the dramatic tension sag, wonderfully capturing just the right tempi and dynamic shadings.
Although “Billy Budd” has now established itself in English speaking countries it is still a rarity in many other countries. This is, in fact, the first ever performance to be given at Opera di Roma, and the Roman audience is, indeed, fortunate to have such a splendid production as an introduction to Britten’s masterpiece. Warner’s reading of the work, set against a naturalistic background of violence and brutality found on a man-of-war, perfectly captures the failure of Captain Vere to deal with the conflict between good and evil, and his subsequent redemption. Quite rightly, she eschewed an interpretation that focused on the homoerotic undercurrents contained within the work, for they are undercurrents and not central themes! It is a truly engaging and thought-provoking production, and deserved to be the recipient of the award for the “Best Production” at the 2018 Opera Awards.
One interesting question, however, remains: why do the men of “The Idomitable” love Captain Vere? A decent chap maybe, but he oversees a ship in which brutality, misery and violence are a daily occurrence. He allows the Master-at-Arms, Claggart, whom he knows to be evil, to operate without check. There is not a single action during the work that could account for such love.