The eternal enemy of righteousness

Michael Grandage’s lack lustre Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera made me very curious to see his very well reviewed 2010 production of Britten’s Billy Budd for Glyndebourne. It is now available on DVD and Blu-ray so I did just that. It’s as good as the Don Giovanni wasn’t.

The set design suggests the interior of a warship of the period (1797) which gives scope for galleries around and behind the main stage area. By changing the lighting and sliding panels into place, it easily becomes anywhere desired on the ship. It’s very much an ‘interior’ setting which is appropriate as the sea is as absent in Billy Budd as it is present in Peter Grimes. Having created a working stage arrangement, Grandage focuses on the Personenregie. What’s striking about this production is how the director works the relationship between the characters and the development of the characters as individuals. Claggart is chilling. Vere lacks, in the last analysis, moral courage but his distaste for Claggart and his manifestations is palpable. Billy radiates simplicity and innocence. The lesser parts too are fully developed, not just filler. Dansker really foreshadows what is to come.

Along with this Grandage contrives some truly striking images. In the prologue “old” Vere appears almost disembodied until the ship materialises around him and the action proper starts. Towards the end of Act1 there”s a striking picture of Billy and Claggart in the centre of the picture; Billy on deck,

Claggart above him at the quarter deck rail. In the final scene the men hauling on Billy’s rope could be straight out of Rodin. Needless to say it takes considerable acting skill across the company to pull all this off. Grandage gets this from a solid cast of anglophone singers led by John Mark Ainsley as Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy and Phillip Ens as Claggart. There are lots of quite important supporting roles so here’s the full cast:

Musically too, this is a treat. The real stars here are the London Philharmonic and conductor Mark Elder. The orchestral playing is taut and incisive and shows off a really good score to fine advantage. The singing is glorious too. Clearly this is a work where the needs of the drama trump pretty singing but in the places where beauty is possible we get it. In the prologue one could easily mistake Ainsley for Pears as he floats the high notes. Imbrailo has a gorgeous voice and there’s some fine singing from many others.

The technical team for this production is essentially the same as for The Fairy Queen and the results are equally good. François Roussillon lets us see the stage and only goes close up where it makes sense. This time I watched the DVD rather than the Blu-ray presentation (two DVD9 discs). It’s not quite as good as Blu-ray. The 16:9 anamorphic picture is very good but even on my less than state of the art TV it’s not quite as good as the 1080i Blu-ray. The sound difference is even more marked. The DVD sound is DTS 5.1 and is clear and well balanced but it comes up short on spatial depth compared to DTS-HD Master Audio. (There’s also LPCM stereo). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles, decent documentation and a few short extras on the first disc.

I recommended this unreservedly for both die hard Britten fans and those willing to explore but get the Blu-ray version if you can.

Lynch, Lomeli and Osborne rock Rigoletto

Last night was the second performance of the COC’s new Rigoletto and the first featuring the alternate leading role trio of Lester Lynch (Rigoletto), David Lomeli (Duke of Mantua) and Simone Osborne (Gilda). The rest of the cast was as on opening night.

Musically this was a really splendid evening. Everybody sang really well. I like Lester Lynch’s idiomatic playing of the title role and he managed to combine a not inappropriate amount of scenery chewing with being thoroughly musical. Lomeli lived up to the “dragged from obscurity by Placido Domingo” hype. I think there is a true Italian tenor emerging here. He nailed his arias with lovely ringing high notes and plenty of swagger. Osborne, on role debut, was lovely. Caro nome was one of the highlights of the evening and ,in general, she sounded very secure across some pretty tough music. The chemistry between the three was pretty good although the production maybe put more emotional distance between Gilda and Rigoletto than is sometimes the case. In any event the voices blended well and seemed well balanced. Among the other roles I was particularly impressed by Kendall Gladden’s Maddalena. She has a really smoky mezzo that created a pleasing contrast with the brighter voices. She’s a pretty fine actor too so it’s easy to see why she gets cast as Carmen! I also liked Philip Ens’ Sparafucile. He was a sinister presence and a genuine bass with a thoroughly solid lower register. All in all, the casting managed to combine very good individual singers into an ensemble that had a really good balance of tone/timbre. The orchestra and chorus were at their usual high standard and Johannes Debus kept things together very nicely and didn’t distract from the singing and I do think this is very much a singers opera.

The production and design (Christopher Alden and Michael Levine) was very decorative. All the action plays out in a lavishly panelled and furnished “gaming room” looking something like the smoking room at one of the better London clubs in the mid/late 19th century. It does duty for the duke’s court, Rigoletto’s home and Sparafucile’s inn. In a sense this creates a kind of unity; all of these spaces are misogynistic theatres of corrupt power and delusion. On the other hand it requires the audience to suspend disbelief more often and more willingly than usual. It’s an odd kind of secret that can be sung mezzoforte in front of the people it’s supposed to be secret from! The male dominated Victorian aesthetic seems to produce a kind of emotional coolness too. We never quite get enough emotional charge in the Gilda/Rigoletto dynamic to fully feel his loss (i.e. I didn’t cry at the end). The final scene though is splendidly and very effectively done.(*)

So summing up, I enjoyed the show.  Musically it is first rate.  The production was interesting but I don’t think the concept was quite able to carry the piece emotionally.  It’s not a disaster and there’s nothing to shock the traditionalist.  Maybe if I had seen Rigoletto a million times before I’d be more positive.  Go see the show and judge for yourself!

The production runs until October 22nd and there is a choice of the cast we saw or Quinn Kelsey, Dmitri Pittas and Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Rigoletto, the duke and Gilda.

(*)Spoiler follows… Continue reading