THE FLOATING CAGE OF BILLY BUDD
Between January 31st and February 28th, the Teatro Real will present 10 performances of Billy Budd, masterpiece of Benjamin Britten, conducted by Ivor Bolton– Musical Director of the Teatro Real – and staging by renowned theatre director Deborah Warner.
The opera, with an entirely male cast ─ 5 tenors, 8 baritones, 1 bass-baritone and 3 basses – led by the baritone Jacques Imbrailo, the tenor Toby Spence and the bass Brindley Sherratt, with the support of the rest of the soloists, mostly Anglo-Saxons.
The splendid choral parts will be performed by the all-male cast of Coro Titular del Teatro Real ─ with the tenacity that characterize the work of its director, Andrés Máspero ─, and the children from the choir Pequeños Cantores de la Comunidad de Madrid prepared by their director Ana González.
The Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real will perform Billy Budd for the first time, after their cheered work with other Britten operas, this time under the baton of the Teatro Real Musical Director, Ivor Bolton.
Deborah Warner directs her fourth Benjamin Britten title ─ after The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucrecia and Death in Venice ─ nowwith the collaboration of the acclaimed Canadian set designer Michael Levine, who has created a stage of great symbolism and enormous technical complexity, transforming Billy Budd’s turbulent ship into an immense floating jail. The artistic team is completed with the prestigious Greek costume designer Chloé Obolensky and the lighting designer Jean Kalman, both long-time collaborators of great theater directors, from Peter Brook to Deborah Warner.
Respecting the most veil and enigmatic spaces of Melville’s story that work as the basis for the opera, treated with modesty and rigor by Benjamin Britten and the opera librettists ─– writer Edward Morgan Forster and playwright and theater director Eric Crozier ─, Deborah Warner conceives the staging without judging the characters and avoiding the most simplistic separation between good and bad (see or hear the interview attached below).
Billy Budd’s naval warship is a terrible metaphor for so many spaces where oppression and tyranny sow the most vile and irrepressible instincts, capable of appearing at any moment. This feeling of instability and latent tension presides over the design of Michael Levine’s set design, a huge cage of marine ropes, where the scenes take place on dangling suspended platforms, which suggest the permanent danger that lies hidden in the claustrophobic universe of the British Navy Army, when the revolutionary winds of France encouraged the oppressed sailors to mutiny. In the fissures of this terrible microcosm emerge feelings and unknown drives.
BILLY BUDD, BY DEBORAH WARNER
I began my directing life in the theatre – with Shakespeare – and I often equate the experience of working on a Britten opera with that of working on a Shakespeare play. Of the three previous Britten pieces I have directed – The Turn of the Screw, The Rape of Lucretia and Death in Venice – the journeys have been as rewarding, as exciting, and as full of discovery as those made with Shakespeare. The interesting similarity is that, as Director, you feel someone is walking by your side, taking you by the hand, and helping lead you towards the interior of the piece. Britten guides you if you are open to the journey, showing himself to be a master dramatist as well as a compositional genius. His works are deeply complex and deeply spiritual, revealing themselves to be of limitless depth and therefore readily yielding to the most robust rehearsal scrutiny.
Melville’s Billy Budd is a multilayered parable of good and evil. The adaptation to opera – the addition of music – adds layer upon layer of complexity, constantly challenging us to question good and evil, innocence and corruption, love and hate – and leaving us in an unanswered and open-ended ambiguity. Here lies, for me, the works genius. It is not black and white. In a BBC interview from 1960 Britten and his librettists speak of the Melville text and the idea of it as a parable and this is what Britten says: “… what always happens with a parable? The people argue indefinitely about what the allegory is. In fact, everyone is right and everyone is wrong”.
The extraordinary triangle formed between the three protagonists plays and weaves a complex web, and it is my job to present them to you without judgement. Whilst a simple reading gives us a good man, an evil man and an avenging angel, I would say we are already off track to define them in this way. They’ve all three got parts of each other within them, and it is where these three merge, collide and crush that the piece becomes great. For example, John Claggart is surely a fallen angel, he has to be – his fear of Billy and what Billy may open up in him is because he recognizes it, he has previously experienced it. We are introduced to three characters vastly different in nature, function and status, but through them we are shown the universality of human experience. That is to say, through their psychological merging they inhabit aspects within all of us, gender apart, which is thrilling to experience and watch.
Most of Britten’s works are underpinned by the idea that sexual love is a dangerous thing, but I’m very struck by how tender affection is one of the strongest feelings that comes from this piece. Life on this boat – “The Indomitable” – is harsh, violent and often ugly. The community is a community of men – of soldiers (many enforced and conscripted) working in the acute discomfort of an eighteenth-century warship. The moments of the opera that are the most devastating and most poignant are the deeply tender moments between those men.
In preparing this piece, one of the most wonderful discoveries has been the remarkableness of Billy’s story, and the understanding that comes to him in the last moments of his life. Billy is a radiant being, simple in soul, but by no means simple of mind. Once Billy’s life gets into serious trouble and he is condemned to death, his understanding becomes remarkable and he makes a complex connection between Captain Vere’s trouble and his own: “We are both in sore trouble, him and me, with great need for strength”.
Through Billy’s last minute revelation of the sighting of a sail in the storm – his poetic salvation – and his understanding of where that boat is bound – “She has a land of her own where she’ll anchor forever” -, he finds the strength to find a way in his own death to help poor lost Captain Vere. He chooses that his sacrifice will be of use, and he does it because of love.
The foundation of the Christian church was radical, because it’s teaching was founded on the principal of love in a world of Romans who lived by the sword – I would argue that Billy’s journey is a radical one. I do not think that Billy Budd is necessarily a Christian parable – the piece has a breadth and scope that extends beyond one definition – but I do believe that at the heart of Billy Budd is Love.
2351: Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) / Thomas Oliemans (Mr. Redburn)
2327: Brindley Sherratt ((John Claggart) / Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd)
2441: Sam Furness (A novice) / Borja Quiza (The Novice’s Friend)
2526: Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) / Duncan Rock (Donald) / chorus and actors
2539: Toby Spence (Edward Fairfax Vere)
2764: Christopher Gillet (Red Whiskers) / Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) / Francisco Vas (Squeak) / David Soar (Mr. Flint)
2822: Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) / Sam Furness ((A novice)
3182: Toby Spence (Edward Fairfax Vere) / chorus and actors
3407: Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd) / Clive Bayley (Dansker)
2070, 2130, 2720, 3128: soloists, chorus and actors.
Photographer: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real