Rarely can Britten's sea-faring tale of innocence destroyed have received such a pole-axing performance as this. A rare occurrence happened at Glyndebourne on Saturday night when every element that guarantees an exceptional evening in the theatre was in alignment – singing, conducting, playing and staging were fused together as one to deliver not only the undisputed highlight of the Glyndebourne season, but also of the operatic year so far.
Billy Budd is open to a whole host of interpretations - usually directors head straight for the gay subtext which is explored in order to give motive to both Claggart's need to destroy Budd, and Captain Vere's inability to save him. One of the major strengths of Michael Grandage's exemplary production is that he tells the story straight, thus leaving the audience to make up its own mind about the characters' motivation. Vere and Claggart's behaviour becomes ambiguous and it is as refreshing as it is welcome to experience a staging which neither lectures nor harangues the observer.
Within Christopher Oram's designs, which give us a minutely detailed skeletal cross-section of an eighteenth century man o' war, Grandage's staging could broadly be described as traditional yet in this instance traditional most definitely does not constitute dull or boring, as Grandage and his superlative cast (here revived by Ian Rutherford) have evidently explored every nuance of the work, so everything that happens on stage arises from both the text and the music. Never before in my experience has the full force of this opera been so unsparingly realised, with most of its impact coming from the unflinching portrayals of the main protagonists.
Tackling his first major operatic role within the UK, Mark Padmore presents us with a brilliantly-etched portrayal of Captain Vere. He presents him not as a vacillating individual but someone who is clearly wrestling with his own conscience and not only is his singing secure throughout but he brings great dramatic weight to bear on the character as well.
Brindley Sherratt is evil-personified as Claggart - prowling the stage menacingly and unwavering in his desire to destroy Billy Budd. His voice is as black as his soul, a nihilistic Iago-like character who also exudes ‘motiveless malignancy' from every pore.
Jacques Imbrailo is unquestionably the Billy Budd of his generation. Generous of tone and pleasing on the eye, he manages to keep the character's ingénue in check so that his acting never becomes mannered. His final soliloquy ‘in the Darbies', spun on a thread of tone is heartbreaking.
There's superb support from Stephen Gadd (Mr Redburn), David Soar (Mr Flint) and Darren Jeffrey (Ratcliffe) whilst Peter Gijsbertsen is physically and vocally perfect as the Novice. Jeremy White's Dansker is a tower of strength and Duncan Rock (a budding Billy) makes his mark as the Novice's Friend.
In the pit Andrew Davis conducts with white hot intensity and the LPO responds with playing that is quite simply incandescent from start to finish. In the battle scene the Glyndebourne Chorus are on blistering form, and given the size of the House, the cumulative effect of orchestra, chorus and all hands on deck pins you to the back of your seat.
An unforgettable evening – do whatever you need to do to secure a ticket for one of the remaining performances as it's hard to imagine any other contribution to the Britten centenary outshining this extraordinary evening of music theatre.