The British warship the HMS Indomitable prepares to attack a French vessel. Photo © Opéra National de Paris/ C. Leiber
There is something deliciously ironic about being seated in Paris’s Bastille opera house watching an opera set on a fiercely royalist British ship in hot pursuit of the Republican French (with, as one character puts it, “their hoppity-skippety ways”) in the years following the storming of the Bastille. But in reality Benjamin Britten’s 1951 adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd is no more anti-French than it is pro-British, because the story dwells on men who were press-ganged into service on the ship and the seething tensions between the different hierarchies. Indeed, the only battle scene in the opera (thrillingly enacted in Act II) ends with a damp squib (almost literally) as the mist creeps in and the British cannon fire falls well short of the French ships.
I must admit that the idea of an all-male opera, without the consolation of soaring soprano lines, is about as enticing as being locked up in an Eisteddfod and forced to listen to endless sequences of male choirs, but Billy Budd (and this production in particular) is special.
The three main characters are the well-read and humane Captain Vere (sung here with great sensitivity by Kim Begley); the evil master-at-arms, Claggart (a broodingly intense Gidon Saks); and the new recruit, Billy Budd (performed with appropriate ardor by Lucas Meachem, who, with his rippling muscles, might have sprung straight out of a 1950s muscle magazine). The repressed Claggart clearly lusts after yet seeks to destroy Budd, the incarnation of beauty and goodness who is loved by all but has one fatal flaw: a stammer.
In the return of this glorious production by Francesca Zambello to the Opéra de Paris, Budd’s Christ-like qualities are brought to the fore, with the ship’s mast shaped like a crucifix. It is rare today to find a production and set that are completely at one with the music and story, but everything here (from the claustrophobia of the lower decks to the open spaces of the upper decks) seems to work perfectly, with moments of breathtaking simplicity, as when the hangman’s noose swings across the stage. As for Britten’s music, it certainly delivers the goods: the terrifying wordless chorus at the end of the opera, which mimics Billy’s stammer and transforms it into an expression of mass revolt, must be one of the great moments in music.
Jeffrey Tate’s musical direction of the Paris National Opera’s excellent orchestra and chorus is assured and finely nuanced. In addition to the lead parts, some very fine singing was provided by François Piolino as the novice who is forced by Claggart to betray Billy and by Yuri Kissin as Dansker, the old man befriended by Budd. Special mention goes to Alison Chitty’s visually stunning sloped set and Alan Burrett’s lighting. The first-night performance was given a warm welcome by the audience.
Opéra National de Paris: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: April 27, 29, May 3, 8, 10, 13, 15 at 7.30pm. Tickets: €5-€138. www.operadeparis.fr
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