Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Billy Budd

OPERA AUSTRALIA present BILLY BUDD an opera in two acts by Benjamin Britten. Libretto by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the story BILLY BUDD, FORETOPMAN by Herman Melville (1891).

I need to disclose that I saw this production at the final rehearsal on Monday night (22nd Sept). I am writing this because I know this is a revival of a production. I also know that I will not get to see it again this season (work commitments) and I feel that for anybody out there who reads my stuff it is a very highly recommended experience. It is "horses for courses" of course. I happen to like going to Opera. I probably won’t go to see the STC presentation of HIGHWAY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL DISASTER in the Wharf 2Loud program. Maybe the music is not my glass of tea. (However, I did try to see RISKY LUNAR LOVE at Carriageworks, (the music hmmmmm? My glass of tea??!!) but the performance I went to was cancelled. (I still will try to get there. Again.))

This is the first time that I have seen BILLY BUDD. The production has a great reputation. It is directed by Neil Armfield and was first presented at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff in 1998. It is also Set designed by an Australian Brian Thomson. The creators of this Opera are prodigiously gifted and talented. Add to this the three leading singers in this production and just on reputation you could be reasonably be assured of at least a decent night at the opera: Philip Langridge, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, John Wegner!!!

The uncompleted novel by Herman Melville which provides the foundation of the Libretto of this opera (E M Forster and Eric Crozier) provides the basis of a wonderfully intriguing work of art. Stripping it back to a fairly unsophisticated take on the piece it is about the meeting of innocence, beauty and good (Billy Budd, foretopsman) with unmitigated evil (John Claggart, master-at-arms), the resultant clash (a death) and the verdict of justice by a humanist with social order responsibilities (Captain Edward Fairfax Vere). Echoes of Othello/Iago and Justice. Michael the Archangel/Lucifer and God!!!!! The text is so fraught with contemporary moral dilemmas of great import that the opera provides great cause for thought and discussion. Its relevance is disturbing. The great ambiguities that it places one in when reflecting on one’s own behavioural beliefs is extremely provoking and uncomfortable in this world of terrorist uncertainty and climate change responsibility and the morality of our money changers and our governments co-operation with them and our own, perhaps self interested equivocal response to their tactics... So….. there is enough reason to attend to the piece.

But add to this Neil Armfield's masterful presentation of the work and it is a must see. (Interesting to me that four of my favourite works of Mr Armfield's come from adaptation of other literature forms CLOUDSTREET, THE TURN OF THE SCREW. THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO and now this.) The Set design with Brian Thomson, a large centrally placed oblong hydraulic platform on revolve, so that it can lift and dip from end to end and seem to float on an ocean of different tempers is truly an ingenious and contemporary solution to placing an eighteenth century ship on stage. The harmony of the set changes with the Britten musical interludes flowing through and over them is most satisfactory. The pragmatic but authentic solutions of the costumes (naval and sailor uniform) is elegantly achieved (Carl Friedrich Oberle). The lighting by Nigel Levings is great support. (The "light swinging" representing the body of Bill Budd in the wings is truly moving and a wonderful solution.)

The staging of this huge male chorus and the drawing out of operatic dramatic performances from All is magnificent. John Wegner, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Barry Ryan, Andrew Collis, Richard Anderson, Conal Coad in principal and featured roles are persuasive and totally believable. The best performance comes from the torn and morally tortured character of Captain Edward Vere played marvellously by Philip Langridge. The story is told through his anguish and it is wonderfully captured in the Prologue and the Epilogue and expanded during the rest of the text.

I hesitate to talk too knowingly about the music and the singing since they are not in my area of expertise. However on a long practice of attending to this art form I can comment that I thought it was fairly great. It seemed to me that Richard Hickox was in full command and indeed inspiring both to his orchestra and singers. Teddy Tahu Rhodes startling in his charismatic physical and psychic (as Billy) presence was also all that one could ask for in the vocal work. So was John Wegner. And it was the dramatic/vocal combination that Philip Langridge and Conal Coad brought to bear on the work that led the company to a truly dramatic musical experience. I was on board an eighteenth century man-at-war on the high seas with a full complement of a naval crew.

I can only add that the score of Benjamin Britten was mesmerizing in its capacity to engage my sense memory and imagination of the environment of the given circumstances of the opera and to propel me dramatically through the story and debate.

There are only 7 performances and I recommend those of you who are able that this is a very satisfying experience.

Playing now until 16 October 2008. Book online or call 02 9318 8200.


Michael said...

Hello Kevin from the UK! I enjoyed reading your blog

You are very lucky to have Philip Langridge as Vere - for me his performances over here in Billy Budd rank among the greatest operatic portrayals I have seen.

We had this production of Billy Budd in London a few years ago, and it was a great success.

I think Billy Budd is a true masterpiece. I shall never forget the first time I saw it, and was completely overwhelmed by the scene in which Vere goes to tell Billy he is to be executed, and Britten portrays this with the amazing sequence of 30 or so chords blasted out by the orchestra.


Anonymous said...

Good observation Kevin, about your favorite 'Armfields', reflecting, I'd guess, his capacity to infuse a truncated situation / character with a depth and understanding he absorbs and condenses from the original.

BTW, the Armfield 'Turn of the Screw' has just been released on DVD (Kulture), which had slipped under my radar, and maybe yours.

Rowena Shepard said...

This production really deserves a dvd. Played in so many theatres, and still nothing... (why are there only 2 official dvds in the first place?) This, and the Zambello production both should be taped. (I have a Zambello performance, but it was an old TV broadcast and not the best picture quality.)