Voices from the deep

Rick Jones marvels at how Britten and Forster's work has lost none of its power.

Billy Budd
Glyndebourne Festival, East Sussex

“The good was never perfect: there is always some defect," sings Captain Vere at the start of Benjamin Britten and E M Forster's opera, Billy Budd. He might have been referring to this new production, which opens the season at Glyndebourne. Michael Grandage's realisation makes an affecting spectacle, harrowing and true, but there are imperfections in the divine image.

Vere commands the Indomitable, a British warship at the time of the French revolutionary wars. He is an old man reminiscing on the past and an apparently satisfactory life. Yet we sense lurking there, twisted among the reeds of his confused mind, a hint of regret. Should he have grown so old? Did he once avoid the opportunity to make a stand, to confront death? The captain and his crew express disappointment that the mist had confounded their pursuit of a French frigate, but though they bluster, "This is our moment!", are they not secretly glad to have avoided conflict? The script summons a flashback and, in one magical moment, the interior of the Indomitable's stern looms forward from the back of the stage and we are drawn into the past.

Thereafter, the set is disappointingly static and it is left to Britten's haunting score, rocking between two chords in the introduction and the beefy chorus's recurrent "Heave, oh heave away, heave", to evoke the queasiness of being afloat. This it does with surging fluidity at the fingers and lips of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the conjuring baton of Mark Elder in the pit. He draws out such richly descriptive colours - the burbling bassoon, the flute coarsely mimicking a bosun's pipe, the soprano sax stammering like the hero - that emerging from the opera house is like stepping off the cross-Channel ferry.

The plot swings between two linguistic traits in the main character, Billy Budd, a new recruit - keen, willing, musical and handsome. On the one hand, he is able to sing out the name of his previous ship, the Rights o' Man, so clearly that the officers think he is spreading sedition; on the other, he stammers so badly when provoked that he is liable to let fly with his fists in frustration. He is well sung by the South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo.

Everyone loves Budd except Claggart, the master-at-arms, who is convulsed with envy and vows to destroy the good newcomer. The bass Phillip Ens sings him in a voice as dark and as rich as tar. He seems a little too subservient to John Mark Ainsley's superbly effete, bookish captain, admired with irrational loyalty by his men as he quotes the classics at them, yet just as willing as they are to hide behind the "we had no choice" excuse for avoiding confrontation - either in the makeshift courtroom or in the enveloping mist.

This metaphor for doubt and confusion is wafted on as dry ice, and slightly overdone. Other scenes reflect art of the period. The group of friends gathered round the elderly sailor Dansker, for example, is a tableau vivant of the "Kiss me, Hardy" painting of the dying Horatio Nelson.

Nelson-like poses abound. When the French frigate is sighted, the officers train their telescopes on it, yet they are apparently still below deck. There are other design infelicities to offend the naval historian. The hammocks are slung low as the Spanish arrange them for siesta - but the Royal Navy stretched them tight and cocoon-like to the ceiling. The deck is bowed like a bowl when, in reality, it would have been humped so that water would run to the sides. Its plane here is the horizontal, a freakishly rare occurrence at sea under sail.

Yet we recognise the power of this production as Christopher Oram's set recedes at the close and we are transported back to the present. Grandage has steered us through a fantasy and held us in thrall. In the end, Forster and Britten are the winners - the former for the questions he raises about our willingness to confront truth and beauty; the latter for his ability to mirror this moral anguish in sound. Nowhere does this happen more affectingly than in the interlude's sequence of simple chords dabbed on to the dark canvas before Able Seaman Budd's fate is pronounced - and Glyndebourne 2010 is launched.

“Billy Budd" is at Glyndebourne until 27 June. The festival runs until 29 August. More details: glyndebourne.com