Review: Billy Budd at BAM is Electrifying

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Summer festivals can lose their shine when revived out of season – and when exported from their leafy environs. But in a rare visit to New York, England’s Glyndebourne Festival, far from its grazing sheep in rural Lewes, left little up to chance with its 2010 Michael Grandage production of Billy Budd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Gilman Opera House. This time, its own London Philharmonic Orchestra was in tow, brought in at such expense that one wondered if flying the audience to England might've been cheaper. 

The justification is that the orchestra under Sir Mark Elder was one of the stars of an evening that exemplified Glyndebourne values that resist the operatic treadmill, exploring the musical and dramatic layers of Billy Budd with a thoroughness and balance not often found anywhere. The Sunday performance reflected repeated seasons with the piece, and though the hydraulic ship decks in the Metropolitan Opera’s production are more impressive, Grandage’s functional unit set by Christopher Oram, doubling for interior and exterior settings, focused the opera's often-unsavory character dynamics with merciless clarity amid a claustrophobic atmosphere that left no place to hide.

The 1951 opera about the charismatic seaman Billy Budd being destroyed by a sadistic master-at-arms does show its age: The E.M. Forester/Eric Crozier adaptation is preoccupied with sullied perfection (a bit silly, isn't it?) and a slavish sense of duty that perhaps Americans will never understand. 

But other themes of lost innocence and the inevitability of fate remain powerful, etched in this production’s stronger-than-usual emphasis on John Claggart (the master at arms), so much that at times he seemed to be the main character, staged front and center during key moments and sung by Brindley Sherratt with a dark bass voice suggesting that he's a Fafner in training. Yet Grandage was right: Claggart is Britten’s Iago, and is the opera’s primary motivation.

As in the 1966 BBC television version of Billy Budd, the aging Captain Vere, while recounting the story, finds himself physically in the ship in an effective melding of past and present. Still, the great English tenor Mark Padmore (right, bottom) is such an articulate interpreter in the role (particularly in comparison to Peter Pears' later Met appearances) that directorial flourishes aren’t needed. 

Jacques Imbrailo, seldom heard in this country and acclaimed in the title role, was an extremely convincing package with his colt-like physicality and plaintive vibrato, though he seems to have more the voice of a recitalist and tended to lose vocal color when encompassing the more frankly operatic moments. The overall ensemble was the sort that's not often seen in New York: It worked like a well-engineered Rube Goldberg machine without ever seeming facile or predictable. 

A special word for the orchestra: Britten performance practice is by no means a closed book, and recordings led by the composer himself didn’t reveal anything close to their totality. The LPO grasped the crisp rhythms and tough, hard-edge articulations given to passages whose main purpose is characterization.

The down side was that some of Britten's less thoughtful wind-instrument solos seemed like more glaring miscalculations than ever before. Atmospheric, full-orchestra passages, though, had a richness and power unlike any performance I've heard, mainly because they were an accumulation of fine details rather than a wall of sound. This may well be the operatic event of the year. For Manhattanites, who might resist trekking to Brooklyn for the Feb. 11 and 13 performances: The trip is much easier than the multiple trains and buses needed to get from London to Glyndebourne. 

Photo: Mark Padmore, Jacques Imbrailo in Glyndebourne Festival Opera's 'Billy Budd' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (© Richard Termine)