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The Execution of Innocence

Teatro Real
01/31/2017 -  & February 3, 6, 9*, 12, 15, 18, 22, 25, 28, 2017
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd, opus 50
Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd), Toby Spence (Captain Vere), Brindley Sherratt (John Claggart), Thomas Oliemans (Mr. Redburn), David Soar (Mr. Flint), Torben Jürgens (Ratcliffe), Christopher Gillet (Red Whiskers), Duncan Rock (Donald), Clive Bayley (Dansker), Sam Furness (A novice), Francisco Vas (Squeak), Manel Esteve (Bosun), Gerardo Bullón (First mate), Tomeu Bibiloni (Second mate), Borja Quiza (The Novice’s Friend), Jordi Casanova (Maintop), Isaac Galán (Arthur Jones)
Coro Titular del Teatro Real (Coro Intermezzo), Andrés Máspero (Chorus Master), Pequenos Cantores de la Comunidad de Madrid, Ana González (Conductor), Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real (Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid), Ivor Bolton (Musical director)
Deborah Warner (Stage director), Michael Levine (Set designer), Chloé Obolensky (Costume designer), Jean Kalman (Lighting designer), Kim Brandstrup (Choreographer)

T. Spence (© Javier del Real/Teatro Real)

This coproduction with the Paris Opera is the Madrid premiere of one of Britten’s most performed operas. Based on Herman Melville’s posthumously published novella, it is an intense dramatic work. The opera opens and ends with the supposedly old Captain Vere remembering a tragic episode that led to the execution of a young recruit, Billy Budd. However, stage director Deborah Warner chose to present us a young Captain Vere, possibly to show that Vere’s anguish has remained fresh throughout his life. Despite having been forcibly recruited from a merchant ship and despite the rough life on Captain Vere’s military ship, Billy Budd remains cheerful and is even happy to finally belong to a tightly knit group. Being a foundling, Billy yearns to belong. His gift and his curse is his radiant beauty, natural goodness and innocence, attributes that make him popular among the crew, but also that cause turbulent feelings among some of the men. Two superior officers are particularly touched by him: the H.M.S. Indomitable’s sensitive and erudite Captain Vere and the envious and evil Master of Arms John Claggart. Despite his overwhelming appeal, Billy has one flow: he stammers. Through his manipulation of a terrified novice, Claggart plans carefully to destroy Billy by accusing him of fomenting a mutiny on the ship. During his interrogation, the shaken Billy is unable to defend himself due to his stammer and, in his fury, strikes Claggart dead. A trial is held by three other officers and Captain Vere refuses to give guidance or provide extenuating circumstances under the pretext of his being a witness. This leads to Billy being condemned to death.

Just as there is a striking contrast between the goodness of Billy and the rancour of Claggart, there is a contrast between the cruelty of life on this floating “prison” as attested by the savage flogging of a young novice for merely being clumsy in performing one of his duties and the warmth of communal life with men sharing a common purpose. The staging of Deborah Warner and the simple but effective sets of Michael Levine succeed brilliantly in conveying this contrasting ‘chiaroscuro’. Levine’s stylized ship with its ingenious upper and lower decks convey this contrast too. Likewise, Britten’s music varies from mostly recitando for the officers on the upper deck to melodious choral singing, inspired by sea shanties, by the sailors on the lower deck. The metal bars in Levine’s ship confirm the claustrophobic atmosphere of the the floating prison that the ship is. Jean Kalman’s masterful lighting accentuates the oppressive atmosphere by exaggerating the sweat on the sailors and the overall humidity on the ship. Britten’s music is not the most accessible, but his libretti are almost always intensely dramatic. For a public that has not heard much of his music as one would expect in Spain, it is through the drama that the public is tamed and even seduced. It was amazing to see a large proportion of young people in the audience. Whatever program Teatro Real has to encourage the young to attend, it certainly is a success.

One way of interpreting this opera is as a Christian allegory. The most obvious is the beautiful, radiant and innocent Billy as Christ, dying for “our” sins. Isn’t Billy a foundling, a man without a known father? Another view is Billy as an avenging angel, destroying both Vere and Claggart, the latter by striking him dead for his mendacious accusations and the former by confronting him with his own weakness and condemning him to eternal remorse. Overall, the cast, both leading and minor roles, sang with a clear diction, which is no easy task especially for non-native speakers. Jacques Imbrailo is an incandescent Billy Budd, youthful, handsome and with strong stage presence. His high baritone conveys his youth. Both Imbrailo and Clive Bayley were moving in the duet between Billy and old Dansker prior to the former’s execution. This atypically melodious duet is even danceable, sounding like a waltz between Billy’s innocence and Dansker’s experience. Imbrailo was masterful in his final soliloquy where he embraces death. The line “I’m sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist” was delivered with a devastating tenderness.

Despite his beautiful light tenor voice, Toby Spence failed to convey the charisma of Captain Vere who is supposedly loved by his crew and who Billy immediately comes to admire. However, he managed to portray Vere’s weakness. His aloofness and fear of getting involved make him the coward that he is, one who hides behind rules and form to allow an innocent’s life to unfairly end. Could it be that he too preferred to destroy the beautiful Billy rather than be confronted by a desire best kept latent? At least, the evil Claggart was determined to destroy Billy. Though neglect, Vere allows Billy’s life to end. John Claggart is reminiscent of Verdi’s Iago, an evil man devoured by envy. Here Claggart is hopelessly attracted by the new recruit. He lusts for his beauty, he envies his natural charisma and most of all, he abhors his goodness. The moment he decides he wants to destroy him is as disturbing as Iago’s Credo. Brindley Sherratt has the perfect voice for this role, a dry baritone that cannot be described as beautiful. Most impressive is his diction. He manages to portray his evil through his declamation. Phrases such as “Having seen you, what choice remains to me?” and “You are surely in my power tonight” are as penetrating as knives. Claggart’s desire of destroying Billy evokes Oscar Wilde’s lines:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Why did Britten choose to change the name of Vere’s ship from the H.M.S. Bellipotent in Melville’s novella to the H.M.S. Indomitable? Why does “the one able to go to war” become “the invincible or the impossible to defeat”? Does it reflect a moral arrogance about the one who survives in this tragic “love triangle”? For in the epilogue, the aged Vere supposedly finds redemption in knowing that the sacrificed Billy blessed him before he died. Redemption for his own cowardice? I suggest eternal remorse.

Ossama el Naggar



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