Britten at the Proms – Billy Budd

(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

A good Billy Budd performance can be judged by the emotional wreckage left in its wake – so the annual visit of Glyndebourne to the Proms could, on that basis, be judged a complete success. So how did the performance come across on the radio?

Incredibly well, it turns out. After some brief introductory sound bites – conductor Sir Andrew Davis talking about how Britten’s opera was ‘dramatically so tight, with a dramatic instinct second to none’ – we were straight into the coldly turning strings, and Mark Padmore‘s expressive introduction.

One of today’s most respected Britten interpreters, Padmore was taking on one of his biggest opera roles yet as Vere, Captain of the HMS Indomitable, who is rendered ultimately powerless to prevent the evil deeds of his master-at-arms, John Claggart. Claggart it is who ensures the greatly loved and well-meaning Billy Budd is prevented, in the most hostile way possible, from making his mark on the boat’s crew.

Claggart was played with an overbearing bleakness by Brindley Sherratt, his voice hollow as winter and laden with menace. His stand-out monologue, ‘Oh beauty, oh handsomeness’ captured him in all his awful glory.

Meanwhile Budd, with his boundless energy, was very accurately caught by Jacques Imbrailo, who paid great attention and unerring perception to his character’s stammer, exploited by Claggart.

This semi-staged production kept the figures in costume, and some sound effects and props were used, such as the rope’s end keeping order over any crew stepping out of line in the first act. Even on the radio there was a really strong sense of perspective in the placement of the voices, especially when the French were sighted, and the preparations for battle began.

The singing was first class, from soloists to chorus members, with enough variation in tonal colour between them to make out the characters clearly, as well as what they were singing. The chorus of ‘O Heave’ from the oarsmen in the opening pages set the scene perfectly, the presence of the ship’s hulk ominous in the gathering gloom, while the climax of the shanty ‘Blow her away’ was stunning in its power.

The overriding emotion in this performance, however, was fear. With Captain Vere held in reverence by the ship’s crew this could be a healthy thing, but more often the fear was that of bullying and punishment. The tension barely let up, leading to the standout moment where even Captain Vere succumbs, aware of Claggart’s deceptive capabilities. This line was bawled out by Padmore, seemingly in block capitals. “HE HAS A HUNDRED EYES!” was the terrifying cry.

I was utterly transfixed listening back to this performance, helped by the clarity of the words and the detailed brush strokes secured from the London Philharmonic Orchestra by Sir Andrew Davis, with the creeping brass lines accompanying Claggart especially chilling. Above all Davis was careful to ensure that at the moment of Vere’s final verdict on Budd, the minimum of scoring carried maximum impact. Meanwhile Padmore’s realisation of what was happening was full, final and devastating.

A quite outstanding Prom, then – one I would urge you to catch online while you still can!

You can listen to Glyndebourne Festival’s production of Billy Budd through the BBC Proms website, and you can also download a short Opera Guide podcast about the opera.

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