Prague National Theatre 2017-18 Review – Billy Budd: Britten Masterwork Capsizes In a Sea of Questionable Direction

By Jonathan Sutherland

Herman Melville, E.M. Forster, Eric Crozier and Benjamin Britten all believed that Billy Budd” was set at sea. Czech theatre director Daniel Špinar thinks otherwise.

His new four-act production of Britten’s psychologically fascinating, demonstrably homoerotic and deeply disturbing drama for the National Theatre in Prague had as much to do with HMS Indomitable as “Madama Butterfly” moved to Mozambique.

In the Prologue, Vere sings “Confusion, so much is confusion!” which is a fitting epithet for Špinar’s fundamentally flawed directional concepts.  Following similarly spurious interpretations such as Richard Jones’ British boarding school setting in Göteberg, Špinar had no hesitation in manipulating the carefully constructed text to his own gay-fixated and textually inconsistent preconceptions.

Nothing to Do With the Text

The single set by Lucia Škandiková was a hospital bed in the center of a bare blue-green stage which looked like a cross between a gigantic Tiffany & Co. shoebox and a pastel urinal. Whilst the hospice setting was all very well for Captain Vere’s poignant soliloquies in the Prologue and Epilogue, it made no sense in the central ship-board scenes, which are intended to recreate the squalid and claustrophobic conditions of a British Man o’war in 1797.

The sole nautical reference was three model sailing ships carried into Captain Vere’s cabin (which was anything but “narrow”) at the opening of Act two, but these were actually of models of the Thermopylae  which was launched more than 70 years after the drama takes place. There was a further small toy yacht carried by six mini-Mozart looking waifs (presumably the powder-monkeys) but this was a Dragon-class sloop first seen in 1929. Specifics in the text were blithely ignored – there were no ropes to haul, no glasses for Vere, Redburn and Flint to toast the King and Dansker doesn’t give Billy anything to eat or drink, making “baby’s” gratitude for unexpected nourishment meaningless. The only additions to the bleak pastel desert were some broken coffins in the second scene of Act two and the sudden appearance of multiple proto-phallic cannons when Billy is interrogated by Vere. Contrary to normal Man o’war ordinance, these armaments are actually pointing inwards towards the protagonists. Not so helpful for firing at the enemy.

The most disturbing directional deviation however came in Act four when Billy strips naked and pops into Vere’s bed, creating the titillating expectation of homosexual congress between the handsome young sailor and the philhellene naval captain. Instead, in Jesus-like manner, Vere solemnly washes Billy’s feet, then after the Articles of War are read (which specifically state that Billy is to be “hung from the yardarm”), Vere impales the supine seaman with his ceremonial sword. Possibly Špinar saw this as some kind of symbolic ultimate penetration, but it had nothing to do with the text or 18th century British naval regulations.

Costume designer Marek Cpin was no better. The sailors were closer to WW1 Kriegsmarine cadets, Billy looked like a cross between Popeye and Querelle styled by Nautica, Squeak could have doubled for the Artful Dodger and Claggart was a Goth grasshopper sporting an over-sized stylized Order of the Garter star – an unlikely honour for a mere Master-at-Arms. The ultimate absurdity was a powder-wigged Captain Vere dressed in a long-trained powder-blue ensemble bedecked with diamond brooches. His appearance at Captain’s muster could have been Liberace sashaying onto the poop of HMS Pinafore.

There is unquestionably a major homosexual theme to this opera, which given the proclivities of the novelist, librettists and composer, should come as no surprise. However, 1951 was hardly a time to caterwaul “I am what I am” and the Sapphic subtext should be as subtle as the behavior of the protagonists is repressed. Špinar has Claggart followed by five handsome body-stockinged dancer/athletes who grope, writhe, roll and climb over each other, and the Master-at-Arms, at every opportunity. It is about as discreet as a drag-show by Divine. During the lengthy “This is our moment” chorus when engagement with the French seems imminent, the dancers put on a Cirque de Soleil show of slow motion pugilism which totally ignores the bustling on-deck directions in the libretto. There was certainly a lot of pectoral pulchritude displayed by the prepossessing Prague lads, but much of Radim Vizváry’s choreography was an unsubtle cribbing of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s human Tarnhelm concept for Guy Cassiers’ “Ring” at La Scala in 2010.

But the Music…

Fortunately the musical component of the evening was much more satisfactory. The chorus of the Czech National Theater Prague was really outstanding and the tricky cross-rhythm ensemble passages such as “This is our moment” were impressively sung. The multitude of small roles were not especially memorable except for a resonant Redburn by Jiří Brückler and a dulcet-toned Friend by Luboš Skala. The only serious negative was that overall English diction was consistently imprecise. This was particularly noticeable in the rollicking  “We’re off to Samoa” couplets.

The roles of cabin boy, novice and tenor solo were impressively sung by Jan Petryka who has a real tenore di grazia timbre and technique. “Over the water, over the ocean” was wistfully lyrical. For some inexplicable reason, Špinar had the novice sing Vere’s “Scylla and Charybdis” passage after Claggart’s murder, ending with “it is I whom the devil awaits.” Although emotionally powerful and vocally well sung by Petryka, this makes no dramaturgical sense whatsoever. Admittedly the novice is weak and cowardly but these failings have been skillfully manipulated by Claggart. It is Vere who is wracked with angst and self-loathing for failing to save Billy and until the guileless youth blesses and absolves him, logically believes he will be damned for his pusillanimity. It is also doubtful that an uneducated young novice would be familiar with Greek mythology.

Gidon Sak is no stranger to the role of the contemptible Claggart, having enjoyed recent success in the part with Donald Runnicles in Berlin. With a palpable Iago-ish malevolence, Sak’s characerization is a seething mono-dimensional study of evil with an S&M kink. There is no attempt at subservient hypocrisy or ignominious dissimulation. The voice is stronger in the upper register but the deeper tessitura such as the low G natural  on “I will destroy you” and the low F-sharp on  “Your honour” lacked resonance and projection.

American baritone Christopher Bolduc was an agreeable Billy with perhaps a better knowledge of what was going on in Claggart and Vere’s mind than more ingénue interpretations. The voice is not especially large and tended to be slightly overwhelmed in the ensemble sections. “Billy Budd, King of the birds” was far from stentorian, but the closing “Through the port comes the moon-shine astray”  scena was beautifully phrased in an intimate lieder-style manner.

Despite the louche Liberace look, Slovak tenor Štefan Margita was vocally convincing as Vere. Margita was able to convey the character’s preoccupation with good and evil, rigid regulations and philosophic humanism with understated eloquence. Whilst his English was often quirky with the occasional rolled “r’s” and extended “e’s”, the voice projected well over the large orchestra and there was some refulgent singing in the upper register exemplified by a clarion top B-natural on “leave me.”

The Real Captain of the Ship

Laurels of the evening however went to young British conductor Christopher Ward and the National Theatre orchestra. This is a maestro who knows how to breathe with the singers and his conducting of Britten’s immensely difficult, kaleidoscopic, sea-sonorous score was translucent and trenchant. There was ebullience, poetry and rhythmic insistency in Ward’s inspired reading and while there may not have been a whiff of salt air on the stage, the orchestra could have come straight from shores of Suffolk. The graduations between atmospheric pianissimi and hefty fortissimi (especially evident in the major/minor triad shifts in the “interrogation scene”) revealed no small degree of virtuosity by the Czech musicians.  Strings were seductive and woodwinds chirpy with the first flute being particularly impressive in the obbligato passages during Billy’s final scena. Brass were raw and raspy and the Grand Inquisitor-ish instrumentation of tuba, low strings and contrabassoon before Claggart makes his bogus denunciation of Billy was truly ominous.

Neither Melville, Forster or Crozier were well-served by this vexatious and inappropos production, however Britten was in excellent hands on the podium. Ward is a conductor to watch.


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