Billy Budd, indomitable

Surprise! For once a Wiener Staatsoper production that is more rather than less than the sum of its parts. The “musikalische Neuinstudierung” of this Billy Budd has gone a long way, and the ensemble and chorus of the Staatsoper get to shine. That means, do your best to ignore most of the principals. The production isn’t going to do much to get your attention either. But it’s pretty good, all told.

Britten, Billy Budd. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/9/2011. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Graeme Jenkins with Neil Shicoff (Vere), Adrian Eröd (Billy), Peter Rose (John Claggart), lots more.

Willy Decker’s austere, elegant production is from 1996 but is only in its 26th performance. (You probably know Decker from his famous “red couch Traviata,” seen recently at the Met and earlier at the Salzburg Festival.) Nevertheless, it seems like a shell. Contra the protests of my standing room neighbor, there is nothing radical about it. The costumes are traditional period, though Billy wears pure white while everyone else wears marine blues. Whatever could that mean? The sets are more abstract. The outer deck shows a ship whose prow faces upstage (rather like Act I of Dieter Dorn’s Met Tristan). Onstage ship settings are always challenging, because if you want to be realistic those things are cramped, but Decker and set designed Wolfgang Gussmann leave the nautical allusions to the costumes and the one outer set, keeping the other sets cavernous and minimal.

Unfortunately, the direction consists largely of transitions between pretty stage pictures stripped of their motivation. Choruses move as masses, but they don’t really communicate anything at this point. Some bits of remaining Personenregie are a little over-the-top, such as Claggart crawling around the stage. One interesting element is the connection of Billy’s stammer to his bursts of violence, as his stammer is accompanied by spasms. I don’t doubt that this production worked very well when Decker was on hand supervising it all and making sure the characterizations came through, but today it doesn’t seem to have much to say about the piece. It’s beautiful, but empty. It’s neutral, if you want to be more positive about it.

(Note: The pictures in this post show the cast I saw with the exception of the one at the very top.)

Adrian Eröd sang Billy quite well, his dry, clear baritone a good fit for Britten and his last scene powerful. But he suffered from a charisma deficit, seems too knowing and wise at key points, and in a role that makes unusual demands of physical presence he is not going to land on the Barihunks blog anytime soon (he seems a bit of a lightweight). (The Barihunks blog: comprised mostly of potential or current Billys.)

Neil Shicoff was announced as indisposed in a notice that mixed an unnecessary quantity of medical detail with a few too many entreaties that he was singing anyways out of the goodness of his heart for his adoring public. He is very popular here, but come on. I don’t know to what extent this indisposition motivated him to sing Captain Vere like he was Dick Johnson, but it’s not to my taste. It was loud, loud, and louder, and while convincingly tortured he did not seem the type to have ever picked up a book. Introspection and delicacy were nowhere to be found. Verismo Vere worked in Act 2, and his wobbles calmed down for some quite impressive singing, but he had been so tortured all evening that it didn’t feel like a high point. The overstatement was both vocal and acting, so it could not have been entirely due to illness.

Peter Rose was the most idiomatic of the leads as an imposing, loud Claggart, and was effectively acted if broadly-drawn. Some of the staging given to him in Act 1 did not seem to fit naturally, but his interactions with the rest of the cast were compellingly creepy.

The real winners in this production were the ensemble and chorus, seemingly involving every 2nd Guard, Nazarene, and Servant I’ve seen at the Staatsoper all season. I don’t know this opera well so I can’t pick out too many people individually, but the overall level was impressive, and the way they all sang together more so. I would like to highlight Alfred Sramek as Dansker (as usual in a role requiring more avuncularity than voice) Markus Eiche as Mr. Redburn, Clemens Unterreiner as Lieutenant Ratcliffe (I think it was him) and Norbert Ernst as Squeak. English was a little off in some places (the Cabin Boy’s German accent was kind of hilarious), but mostly comprehensible. The chorus in particular showed wonderful ensemble and expression.

Much of the credit for the above ensemble also belongs to conductor Graeme Jenkins. The orchestra was also a little less than idiomatic, with a lustrous Old World sound sometimes lacking in leanness and tension. But for what it was it was gorgeous, the clarity of texture was remarkable, and balances and tempos spot on (with a few inevitable exceptions, this is very exposed music). It had, on the whole, a reflective, almost meditative quality–exactly what I thought was missing from Shicoff’s Vere. It was a shame that the set movers had to be so noisy during those heartbreaking chords near the end. You know the ones I mean.

Despite the issues, this is well worth seeing, and a powerful evening. Would that more Staatsoper shows came together so well! Plenty have better raw ingredients than this one and yet inferior results.

(One more comment from my offended elderly British neighbor in standing room. He was mansplaining the opera to me before the show, and carefully warned me that there were no female roles. In simple sincerity, he asked, “Do you like men?” I replied, as deadly serious as I could possibly be without giggling, “Yes. I like men.” Because I’m actually 13 years old. Luckily this flew right over his head. Was tempted to add, “And I don’t mind that this opera is gay gay gay gay.”)

There are two performances remaining: 13 and 17 February.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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  1. I went this afternoon, and my impression is essentially the same: not bad at all. I went for dinner after and it isn’t my habit to take notes, so sorry for these rushed (and quite long) thoughts.

    First for the bad: Shicoff, whose characterisation was shorn of nuance when called for and embarrassingly melodramatic when not, with singing that veered (no pun intended) between shouty and adenoidal, and enunciation full of pseudo-Oxbridge chapel choir inflections. Beginning of Act III saw a momentary improvement, but the rest of it was just dire.

    As for the others: Eröd's English was convincing, even quite natural most of the time, and I thought his performance generally competent. You already pinpointed what was missing, and I’m fond of his dad so am going to cop out. Rose was an impressive bully – clear, unaffected English and a solid, intimidating tone. That Claggart’s ‘depravity’ and ensuing inward self-loathing and outward malevolence are dealt with unsatisfactorily by the libretto or indeed are all that there is to the character are two things about which I profoundly disagree with Britten scholars such as Reed and Brett. At the beginning of his soliloquy there’s self-loathing for sure, but also the flicker of a conscience, and I would argue that Claggart is aware to quite some degree of the moral wretchedness of his self-deception. Far from a librettist’s fudge (actually I consider this Forster’s strongest contribution to the libretto), it's a powerful Shakespearean moment, but Rose didn't really strike me as self-conflicted and much of the tension here was lost. Incidentally I think the crawling about was perhaps originally choreographed as a series of foetal positions, which might have been quite powerful with a more versatile actor.

    To what extent this is acting or direction I’m not sure. But personally, I prefer my homoerotic gestures a little less perfunctory. The cabin boy brings wine and Shicoff clumsily pats him on the head twice. And his embracing of Billy seemed almost inhibited. Erotic frissons are similarly absent when Claggart grabs at Billy and headlocks sailors. A wandering hand would be too much, but it wouldn’t be too crass for these moments to linger a little longer!

    Very able conducting. The chords weren't always together & the loud ones were a little too apocalyptic for my liking. But good playing on the whole – I didn't mind that it wasn't how a British orchestra would play Britten; it can be refreshing to hear that idiom through a different lens. The quality of the ensemble was similar to that for a typical UK performance of Britten, so I wasn’t that taken aback, but considering it’s the Staatsoper I suppose we ought to be thankful.

    Would be interested to know if you went to the incompetent Werkeinführung given by Andreas Lang.
    Apparently British music in "das Land ohne" was reborn purely out of the spirit of Mahler and Berg, and Britten's contemporaries did not influence him in any significant way (er, V-W? Walton?). And a few other such clangers, including that this four act version is dramatically much superior to Britten’s later revision (it isn't). Still I was glad to see it as this version is rarely performed in Blighty. The one thing going for it is the scene where Vere rouses his men (and is hero-worshipped) – Pears disliked the sabre-rattling, hence the revision. This clarifies Billy’s parting words (Starry Vere, God bless you) much better than the other version, where they can appear elusive. It also better illustrates the bond between Vere and his men that is so central to his self-conflict and Billy’s devotion. Essentially what houses need to do is produce the two act version but restore that scene.

    Lastly, I know it's cheeky to suggest alternative post titles but "O Captain! My Captain!" occurred to me in Act IV and it's just too good not to share.

  2. Thanks for the insight!!! You know this opera so much more thoroughly than I do.

    I'm glad you got the same impression of Shicoff as I did. Not that I like anyone being a disaster but everyone else seemed to think he was so so great that it made me doubt my judgment. Personal popularity goes a LONG WAY here.

    Eröd was OK, but IMO it's a little bit too bad to have him when Nathan Gunn is in town (for Rape of Lucretia). I don't know how popular he is the UK but in the US he is the Billy and all-around barihunk par excellence. Maybe I'm just saying that out of patriotism, though.

    Also thanks for the superior gaydar. This was the first time I'd seen this opera, actually, and between that and the vagueness of the staging I was not alert to such things. I am aware that they are important, but especially when the staging is this wobbly you have to know where to look. Which is not a good thing.

    I didn't go to the Werkenführung (and don't know the piece well enough to comment on the differences between versions other than to notice that they were there–thanks!); I was busy chatting with the guy who asked me if I liked men. I bet his gaydar isn't that great either.

    I'm going to keep the title as it is but will remember "O Captain!" for the next occasion I have to write about Billy. 🙂

  3. I'm not so familiar with Nathan Gunn – he seems to be much bigger in America than the UK or Europe – but I am looking forward to Lucretia very much.

    I see in the cold light of day that my criticism of Shicoff is a rather inelegant rant. And I'm spoiled because Britten is usually done well in the UK. But when in the interval your thoughts turn to 'would I rather watch Brian Blessed blunder through Lear?', it's just not good.

    And I wasn't hoping to usurp your title! Besides, "O Captain! My Captain!" should be reserved for a Billy who deserves it.

  4. No, your title is better than mine. It's just hard to change titles after publishing, the URLs get confusing.

    I understand your Shicoff-related vehemence–it's always enraging when the general opinion differs so starkly from what you think your ears are objectively telling you. That's why I was so glad to hear you also thought he sounded highly questionable.

    Gunn isn't a voice for the ages but he's good, and a good actor.

  5. "Like Dick Johnson" – yeah, I just realized what was my problem with Shicoff. I love him but he's too much. I love Vere with a more elegant, more frail voice and Shicoff is just no "natural aristocrat". I miss Philip Langridge so badly… he was the perfect Vere for me.

    But I loved Peter Rose, his voice is huge and beautiful, and much more velvety than Halfvarsson's (who was a terrific Claggart too, creepy and psycho). I usually think Hagen types make the best Claggarts but Rose has a very noble bass, fit for kings and good priests but also manages to be super evil. That crawling around in the aria is indeed silly – kick the director please. Although now it seemed to work better than on the premiere. Rose is a more sensitive type than Halfvarsson and perhaps more passionate. And I loved the little random moment when he realized he lost the scarf and grabbed it quickly again like the most precious treasure… and that he kept it in his jacket, not just in a pocket. He's so obviously gay for Billy… (not like Vere wasn't)

  6. During the relevant era, Shicoff had the goods. The last two things I saw him do in New York were the calamitous first night of the Graham Vick production of Il Trovatore in which actions he'd been given to do drew audience jeers that he managed to work through, and Eleazar in La Juive in which his "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" was probably the single most searing and emotionally overwhelming performance of anything I have ever seen outside of King Lear, and won an extended ovation. If the voice is shot now, I hope you'll not think that's the entire reality.

    My thought on Billy's isolated white costume is that it may be a heavy-handed innocence symbol.

  7. Hi Will, yeah, I realize I missed the right era for him. The Viennese are incredibly faithful to their aging favorites and unable to see their faults. Even when you know that the favorites had their days in the past, it can be frustrating to experience the present collective euphoria when you did not see those days personally.

    And my question about the white sailor costume may have been a little bit sarcastic.

  8. I have the 2001 Vienna premiere on dvd (it was a tv broadcast) and Shicoff sounded much better there, although his voice is a spinto, not a lyrical tenor.