If proof were needed that Benjamin Britten is among the greatest of opera composers, stagings of his works in recent years have delivered some of the most memorable nights of music theatre UK audiences have witnessed.
Prominent among them is Michael Grandage's Glyndebourne Billy Budd, revived at the Sussex house this Summer. This semi-staging, as always with Glyndebourne's fully costumed Proms visits, captured the essence of the production and proved very nearly as powerful and moving as its home run.
It was to be expected that some of the claustrophobic intensity of Christopher Oram's barrel-like set and the intimacy of the smaller auditorium would get lost on the infinite sea of the Royal Albert Hall but, while there was a slight blurring of focus in places, Ian Rutherford's re-working for the shallow podium in front of the orchestra added an abstract quality that made the detailed bustle of ship life all the more chaotic and believable. The staging of the hanging scene was every bit as harrowing as it had been in the theatre.
Sir Andrew Davis is, of course, a festival favourite, from his many years as music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and he followed his exemplary Midsummer Marriage prom a couple of weeks ago with a performance that showed just what a great score Billy Budd is. The playing of the LPO was incisive and reflective, grabbing every orchestral opportunity Britten gives them, the aborted battle scene as thrilling as it had been at Glyndebourne.
The singing is of the highest standard, with vivid characterisations throughout, from Colin Judson's weasly Squeak, Peter Gijsbertsen‘s heartbreaking Novice to Jacques Imbrailo's mellowly beautiful Billy and Mark Padmore's achingly anguished Vere. From mizzen to keel, it's immaculately cast, with the Glyndebourne Chorus also on top form.
One has come to expect great things of Brindley Sherratt and none is greater than his blacker–than-night Claggart. In some ways he plays the archetypal villain (which sadly drew some of the now expected pantomime boos at the curtain call) but he does it so convincingly, with such deep-felt malice and darkness of tone, that one can hardly imagine a better interpretation.
The literalness of Sherratt's performance is an indicator of Grandage's whole approach. There's nothing in this production you would not expect, no fancy re-interpretations, conceptual tricks or visual surprises, yet it leaves you seeing and hearing the work afresh and marvelling at Britten's stagecraft.
If Barenboim achieved an impressive silence at the closing of Gotterdammerung, Davis managed to keep a generally well-behaved audience at bay for even longer. One thought this might be the moment when the power of the performance had completely stunned the auditorium into a state of hushed reverence.
In another strong year for opera at the BBC Proms (now a must-go occasion for operagoers between main house seasons), this was the outstanding contribution. Following a "Ring" series that is sure to be talked about for years to come, that points to the extent of Glyndebourne's triumph.